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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 30, 2010

City may eliminate cultural programs

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

All Summer Fun and senior citizen programs, the Royal Hawaiian Band, the Office of Culture and the Arts and Office of Economic Development could face elimination by the City Council if the state Legislature slashes hotel room tax revenues that go to the counties, Council Budget Chairman Nestor Garcia said last night.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee yesterday passed a bill that would cap the counties' share of the transient accommodations tax at $50 million .

That's just over half of the $99.4 million for fiscal year 2011 projected to be shared by Honolulu, Maui, Hawai'i and Kaua'i counties.

For the city, that would mean needing to cut at least $20 million from the $1.82 billion operating budget submitted by Mayor Mufi Hannemann earlier this month.

The state House proposed capping the hotel room tax at the current $94.4 million. Gov. Linda Lingle proposed cutting the room tax revenues from the counties entirely, which would result in a $44.5 million loss for Honolulu.

The end result must still be hashed out between House and Senate leaders.

Already anticipating a loss of at least $20 million, Garcia said he's put in writing a proposal that would eliminate in their entirety:

• The city's Summer Fun and senior citizen programs, which would save about $21.1 million.

• The Royal Hawaiian Band, which costs about $1.9 million annually.

• The Neighborhood Commission Office, which oversees the city's 33 neighborhood boards (with the exception of the executive director), at a savings of about $1 million.

• The Office of Culture and the Arts, $718,000.

• The Office of Economic Development, $600,000.

Garcia said he chose the programs based on the notion that the city's main priorities should be its public safety responsibilities.

"Public health and safety are the most important thing, that's my priority," Garcia said. "Cops, firefighters, ambulances, toilets flushing. After that, I take the knife."

The elimination of Summer Fun and senior citizen programs, in particular, could have a huge effect on the community because thousands participate in them. Summer Fun, by itself, takes in an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 youths annually.

City-sponsored senior citizen programs are counted on by thousands of elderly O'ahu residents as a means of staying active.

City Parks and Recreation Director Lester Chang said he had not yet seen Garcia's proposal and does not want to say too much until he does.

"It would affect many, many people," Chang said.

He added that it would be difficult to eliminate the programs for one year and then try to bring them back the following year or sometime shortly thereafter.

"You can't just pull the plug and then put it back in and make it work again," Chang said. His department has already "nipped and tucked all over the place," including in the Summer Fun and senior citizen programs, he said.

It remains to be seen if Garcia's eight council colleagues will agree with him on the cuts.

But Garcia said there are few options, both for the Legislature and the council.

He said he doesn't expect the counties to be completely immune to any cuts from their share of the hotel room tax. "I understand where (state lawmakers) are coming from," he said.

Garcia said there are also few options for the council.

A number of council members have balked at Hannemann's property tax plan, which calls for giving absentee residential property owners a higher tax rate than owner-occupants. If that tax increase is rejected, the council would need to find $18 million elsewhere, Garcia said.

Given that four of his colleagues are seeking other offices in this fall's elections, he said he doesn't anticipate they'll support raising property taxes any further.

Last year, council members rejected a call for higher taxes, in anticipation of a shortfall, proposed by Hannemann and supported by Garcia.