View Point

By Bruce Carlson

Saturday, March 22, 1997

State shouldn’t raid
aquarium cash box

I have been following the Hanauma Bay fee issue with great interest because of significant similarities to our situation regarding admission fees at the Waikiki Aquarium. Media commentary reflects public sentiment that user-fees are OK provided they are used for the maintenance of Hanauma Bay and related programs.

The public has said it will not tolerate having these fees diverted to pay for shortfalls in other government operations. The City Council understands this sentiment, but fees collected by state facilities may be "raided" (in the jargon used downtown) and used for any purpose.

This is wrong. Diverting designated fees and using them for other unspecified purposes is tantamount to a tax, and goes counter to the public-hearing process which allowed fees to be established in the first place.

Admission fees to the Waikiki Aquarium are deposited in a "special fund" account and are restricted by law for the maintenance and programs of the Waikiki Aquarium.

However, it is apparently legal for these funds (and the interest earned on any balance), to be taken and turned over to the state general fund or to other funds. Two years ago the Waikiki Aquarium endured a budget cut of nearly $250,000 and was also forced to turn over $92,400 of admission fee deposits from its special fund account.

We did so without protest, but we have no idea how or where those "restricted" funds were eventually used. We expect a similar "sweep" (another bit of jargon) this year as the state faces further budget shortfalls, or worse, the complete elimination of our special fund with 100 percent of admission fees going to the general fund (e.g., Senate Bill 623 and House Bill 1800).

These actions are counterproductive and against policies mandating that the aquarium, and similar revenue-generating departments, become more entrepreneurial and self-sufficient. State departments that have accomplished this goal, and which have proven themselves capable of maintaining their fiscal affairs and standards of excellence, appear to be exactly the departments which are penalized.

Raiding special fund accounts may be legal (or is it?), but the public ought to be upset if their aquarium admission fees are not used for maintaining aquarium facilities and programs, just as they expressed anger at the prospect of Hanauma Bay fees being used for other city operations. Aquarium admission fees are not taxes for the general fund, or any other fund.

The media and the public supported the aquarium in 1993 when we asked to charge an admission fee. I think we have demonstrated responsibility and excellence in the services we have provided to the public through our education programs, exhibits, and the upkeep of our grounds and building. We have worked hard to transform the aquarium from a mediocre facility with 100 percent of our operations paid from the general fund, to a gem of an aquarium with a world-wide reputation that is also 80 percent self-sufficient and the No. 5 paid attraction on Oahu. Agencies and departments, such as the aquarium, which are achieving excellence and creating new jobs are exactly the ones which should be protected and nurtured, not targeted and sucked dry.

When the University of Hawaii was granted the right to establish a special fund to keep tuition fees rather than turn them over to the general fund, President Kenneth Mortimer implored the Legislature to resist cutting the university's general fund appropriation which would be equivalent to a "penalty for success."

He argued, correctly, that the university could never prosper under such a zero-sum policy -- no matter how hard it tried to excel it would always be pushed back. Likewise, while we accept the fact that we will face further cuts to our general fund budget, we argue that admission fees and special funds should neither be raided nor used as a reason to make disproportionately deeper cuts to our general fund appropriation.

Bruce Carlson is director of the Waikiki Aquarium.

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