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Grants-in-aid should be vetted

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There is a reason why the city has a special commission to provide oversight where grants-in-aid from the municipal coffers are concerned. It helps to ensure the money giveaways are fair and benefit groups fulfilling a purpose in the public’s interest.

The recent flap over a quarter-million-dollar request for help from a Sand Island church illustrates why that commission is in place, and should be used routinely.

It also prompts the question: What were City Councilman Joey Manahan and Council Chairman Ernie Martin thinking?

The two politicians responded to New Hope Church Oahu, which had requested funds in its construction capital campaign, by setting aside $250,000 in next year’s $2.3 billion budget for that purpose.

The initial justification — “for the expansion of New Hope Oahu’s Center for Hope Capital Campaign” — is a wholly inappropriate beneficiary of a city grant.

The proviso now has been amended to leave it open to potential applicants, including New Hope. Eligible projects would be those that would use it for programs aiding the homeless, needy veterans, youths with special needs or domestic violence victims — or some combination of those goals.

The money needs to be excised from the budget entirely. Any such request should go through the established Grants in Aid Advisory Commission.

The church, located at 290 Sand Island Access Road, had sought the grant; Martin and Manahan had submitted separate requests on New Hope’s behalf to the Council Budget Committee.

Those original requests were for a project that would include a four-story parking structure with about 270 stalls, an expo center, a 400-seat auditorium, a dining cafe, a resource center and new restrooms. All of these improvements are planned as part of the church’s $10 million capital campaign.

“The center will benefit its thousands of islandwide church members and provide various outreach programs,” Manahan said in his proposal.

Martin said he was told the facility expansion would benefit service programs for veterans, the homeless, at-risk youth and others in need.

According to Gary Kurokawa, deputy director of the city Department of Budget and Fiscal Services, request for grants under- writing a construction project are unusual. And although the budget proviso now would direct funds to programs, money is a fungible resource for churches and organizations.

So by replacing resources already pegged for programs, it could more easily enable construction of a facility whose prime users would be church members.

This raises concerns about challenges based on the so-called “separation of church and state” provision in the U.S. Constitution. Courts have interpreted the First Amendment’s religious-freedom guarantee to bar lawmaking that favors one religion over another.

Vetting proposals to screen out potentially problematic proposals, such as the New Hope request, is the purpose of the grants commission. This oversight process was developed after, in 2012, the passage of a City Charter amendment requiring 1 percent of city revenues to be distributed to nonprofit groups.

The Council has resisted efforts to rein in all grant requests for review by the grants panel. In 2013, before the commission was constituted, it insisted on carving out $8 million in grants to distribute on its own.

Clearly, politicians love to have some discretionary funds to give away; it makes for a good credit line on a campaign brochure and garners favor with organizations, some of which include influential community members.

The precise motives here for outreach to New Hope are unclear; neither Martin nor Manahan belongs to that church. Regardless, that amount of money should be subject to the regular round of review by the grants advisory commission.

Without that oversight, special favors such as this could easily slip by, unnoticed. And issuing unwarranted benefits to private entities is not the way to manage public funds.

Comments (14)

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    • agree..that is hardly too much to ask for. I really regret that the City Council gets to make any grants in aid. They are just not competent to distribute tax money to their favorite pet projects. Cut city taxes and let citizens make their own philanthropic decisions.

    • It was not wrong for New Hope to rent the facilities. What was wrong was that the DOE, apparently under pressure from BOE chief and New Hope Deacon Horner, rented the facilities at a bargain. That si why so many opposed Horner’s bizarre BOE reappointment. Later he was discredited as the HART chair as well.

      • Actually Allie, the practice pre-dates Mr. Horner and the appointed Board by decades. The HIDOE did have policies in place limiting churches to five consecutive years. What happened was that the policies were abused or ignored. Churches were supposed to be able to rent cafeterias while they were constructing permanent facilities. I know of one case where the permanent church was built and leased to another congregation while they paid nearly nothing for more than a decade. Some congregations were given decades of rental of facilities at rates far below HIDOE guidelines. There were kickbacks in the form of things like air-conditioning, housing, etc.

        • True but you make my same point. It is legal to rent facilities. The poor judgement of the DOE was to rent facility at bargain rates as a favor to a church allied with Don Horner. This is all public information and was one of the main reasons why so many showed up at the legislature to oppose his reappointment.

  • “. . . City Charter amendment requiring 1 percent of city revenue . . .” Please correct this. The GIA program is funded with .5% of general funds.

  • Many grants are given out by the city annually. The budget committee should have a discussion about this, so we can understand which departments are giving grants, how much they’re giving away, and how they’re making those awards.

  • agree, martin and Manahan was trying to make an end run to avoid the vetting process and just add their names to the grants program. this is simply fraudulent. don’t they have any integrity? these guys should be investigated by the ethics commission for their involvement in this. who knows, there might be more.

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