Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin and Councilman Joey Manahan are backing away from New Hope Church Oahu’s request to have the city provide $250,000 in grants- in-aid for its expansion plans at Sand Island.
Late Wednesday, Martin sent a memo to Council Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi asking that his initial request to fund the expansion project be deleted and replaced by one seeking $250,000 “to support a public-private consortium focused on developing a strategy to assist the homeless, needy veterans, youths with special needs and/or victims of domestic abuse.”
Martin’s new proviso also makes it clear that the money could not be used for any construction, or capital improvement, costs. New Hope could still be eligible to apply for the money — if it met the language in the new provision, he said.
Manahan, meanwhile, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Wednesday that he couldn’t expect his colleagues to support funding for New Hope’s expansion given the uproar in recent days about concerns that the request might violate the U.S. Constitution’s church-state separation provision.
“I’d be hesitant to have the other members of the committee vote on it,” he said.
Martin had proposed Monday that the Budget Committee include $250,000 in next year’s $2.3 billion operating budget “for the expansion of New Hope Oahu’s Center for Hope Capital Campaign.”
Manahan, in a separate request, also asked for $250,000 to be set aside for the Center for Hope Capital Campaign. “The Center for Hope will include a four-story parking structure that will fit approximately 270 stalls, an expo center, a 400-seat auditorium, a dining cafe, a resource center and new restrooms,” the proposal said. “The center will benefit its thousands of islandwide church members and provide various outreach programs.”
Martin said he was told the expanded Sand Island facilities would allow New Hope’s service programs for veterans, the homeless, at-risk youth and other indigent populations to grow.
The so-called “separation of church and state” provision in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees religious freedom of individuals by establishing a wall of separation between church and state. It has been widely interpreted by the courts to mean the government cannot make laws that favor one religion over another.
Recognizing that the public might have concerns about the separation of church and state, Martin said he made it clear to Manahan that “any entity, faith-based or not, that is a recipient of public funds has to provide the city with assurances that these services would be available to everyone, and not just people of a particular faith or orientation.”
Manahan, whose Council district includes Sand Island, said he proposed the funding request simply for it to be vetted and considered by the Budget Committee.
“We hadn’t decided anything,” he said, adding that the public parking the expanded facility would provide would help a section of Sand Island that is developing rapidly.
Manahan said both he and Martin wanted, and received, assurances that the project would have public use. “They assured us that it would be free and open to the public … but it’s part of an overall capital campaign that they’re starting now.”
Told of Martin’s proposed change, Manahan said he would be open to it.
Martin said it’s not unusual for a religious organization to receive grant money from the city for programs that benefit the community. He noted that the Salvation Army, Hawaii Catholic Charities and St. Francis Healthcare are all previous recipients.
Martin and Manahan said they are not New Hope members.
Ken Silva, a staff pastor with New Hope Oahu, said the church provides a variety of services for those who are part of the 6,000-member congregation and those who are not. “We don’t discriminate in our programs, whether they are church members or not church members,” he said.
Recently the church sponsored a prom for 150 people with special needs that was free to attendees thanks to a national grant provided by former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, Silva said.
A former Honolulu fire chief, Silva said the parking structure could also be used as a safe haven for those in the Sand Island community in the event of an emergency.
Most of the renovation project’s funding will come from church members, but church leaders are looking for additional money, he said.
Kobayashi, the Council budget chairwoman, said she was dubious about the initial requests earmarking money for the New Hope building fund. The U.S. Constitution bars the government from giving money directly to a church for church purposes, she said.
But if a religious organization wanted to provide a homeless shelter program, that would be OK, provided it would be open to the public and those participating “aren’t forced to become a member or have to listen to a message.”
Gary Kurokawa, deputy director of the city Department of Budget and Fiscal Services, said it’s highly unusual for a grant-in-aid request to seek funding for a construction project.
A city law requires that one-half percent of estimated general fund revenues each year go to a grants-in-aid fund to tax-exempt nonprofits “that provide services to economically and/or socially disadvantaged populations or provide services for public benefit in the area of the arts, culture, economic development or the environment.”
To be eligible for a share of what this year is a $5.5 million pot, nonprofits have to submit applications to a committee that must grade and rank applicants. Its recommendations are then sent to the Council, which makes the final decisions.
New Hope Oahu did not submit an application. If its request were to be approved, it would be in addition to the $5.5 million pool.
Since 2013, the Martin-led Council has provided additional funds to nonprofits beyond what’s offered under the Grants in Aid program.