Funding no walk in the park

LIHUE — As a county official who oversees nearly 21 beach parks, two stadiums and 44 parks across the island, covering 487 acres, Department of Parks and Recreation Director Lenny Rapozo will tell you there’s a lot of ground to cover.

And with a $10.2 million budget to maintain it all with a full-time staff of 150 workers, along with an additional 130 to 140 seasonal workers to run year-round senior and youth programs, looks can sometimes be deceiving.

“A lot of times people just look at dollar amounts and that’s not fair,” Rapozo said. “Our uncles before me really tried to take care of the Kauai kids, but when you take care of the kids and you take care of the community, there’s going to be a cost.”

Between 2008 and 2014, departmental expenditures have steadily risen from $8.5 million to $10.2 million, falling slightly during a few years in between.

Just over $56 million in taxpayer money was allocated to the Department of Parks and Recreation during those six years.

During the 2013-14 fiscal year alone close to $7.6 million — or 74 percent of the department’s operating budget — was dedicated to employee salaries and benefits.

Other expenditures include about $1 million for utilities and $260,340 for equipment purchases, maintenance or leases.

Those numbers, however, only serve as a small part of the picture, Rapozo said.

“It’s not a fair or accurate picture when people say we’re spending and the budget keeps going up, when we cut and cut,” he said. “It’s other factors that drive the budget up.”

Examples of those cuts, he said, include the delayed replacement of concession onthe South Shore, and back-stops at the Mayor Bryan J. Baptiste Sports Complex in Kapaa and Kalawai Park in Kalaheo.

Many services provided

In addition to the neighborhood parks, the Department of Public Works is also charged with maintaining Vidinha Stadium, Ke Ala Hele Makalae, and almost all Kauai beaches, including Lydgate and Poipu beach parks. Only two beach parks on Kauai, Polihale and Haena state parks, are managed by the state.

“It’s just offering so much for our people and for our families that is free, allows them to keep active, and stay healthy through the use of our facilities,” said Beth Tokioka, county spokeswoman. “The return on investment is quality of life for people who live here on Kauai. You need to look at why you’re spending the money.”

The duties of the park caretakers, Rapozo said, include cleaning comfort stations; mowing and weed-whacking grassy areas; cleaning the pavilions; disposing of trash; and providing information and recommendations to park and facility users.

At parks where camping is allowed, caretakers also handle special permit requests. At parks that Ke Ala Hele Makalae, the county’s multi-use path, goes through, caretakers maintain the path and perform minor repairs.

The Department of Parks and Recreation is also charged with administering senior and youth programs at neighborhood centers across the island, which attracted at least 15,285 residents and visitors in 2014, according to annual department reports.

The department, Rapozo said, also has a beautification crew — five on the Westside and six on the Eastside — who take care of grounds on county facilities.

An affordable ‘Disneyland’

Before the Department of Parks and Recreation was formed through a voter-approved charter amendment in 2006, Rapozo said some of his department’s projects were buried in stacks of files in the Department of Public Works.

“Now, the parks get the attention it deserves and needs,” Rapozo said. “If you think about it, not everybody can go to Disneyland, but if you can provide a Disneyland in a park that’s affordable, that’s Disneyland for some local families.”

Karen and Doug Call of St. George, Utah, who were wrapping up their first weeklong vacation to Kauai on Saturday, said they enjoyed the island’s clean beaches.

“It’s very beautiful,” Karen Call said at Lydgate Beach Park. “I’ve been looking for whales, but I haven’t seen any just yet.”

Amber Fraser, a visitor from Alberta, Canada, said she has been to Kauai three times and believes the parks on the island are hard to beat.

“The paths and everything that they have here for biking, walking and running is great,” Fraser said Saturday at Lydgate Beach Park in Wailua. “They also have a lot of shelter space here. The only thing that I think Mexico has over Hawaii are the palapas on the beach for shade.”

Kauai Visitors Bureau Executive Director Sue Kanoho said that, from a tourism standpoint, parks matter.

“We have significant locations, such as Poipu, Lydgate and Salt Pond beach parks, that are all really important to the visitor industry,” she said.

Indy Reeves, who has lived on Kauai for the past 12 years, said Lydgate Beach Park is one of her favorites on Kauai because Kamalani Playground gives her children a place to play.

The Wailua Homesteads resident said she would like to see more shade trees in the parks and better playground equipment available for children as they age.

“Keeping them maintained so the kids feel safe is important — you need to keep the vandalism in check, so that’s why keeping them nice is important,” Reeves said.

Challenges lie ahead

Though the Department of Parks and Recreation has made some strides over the last nine years in upgrading and maintaining county facilities, some officials and residents say there are some challenges that lie ahead.

One of them, Rapozo said, is keeping up service expectations from residents and visitors alike.

An example of this, he pointed out, has been the number of calls that department officials receive for installing portable toilets for convenience, rather than practical or necessary, purposes.

The costs for installing and maintaining portable toilets around the island amounted to $241,025 last year, including for those used at county-sponsored events.

To cater to more seniors, parks administrators have created activities like badminton, hiking and water Zumba classes.

“They’re not like our grandmas and grandpas who go out and make ikebana and roll sushi,” Rapozo said.

Rapozo said he is finding it difficult to identify further cuts to accommodate the nearly $8.2 million in collective cuts that all county department heads have been asked to consider for the upcoming fiscal year.

A creative solution, he said, has been forging partnerships with community organizations for the maintenance of some county facilities — like those forged between Kapaa hotels for Ke Ala Hele Makalae and the Hanamaulu Hillsiders senior baseball team for Peter Rayno Sr. Park.

“Our goal is to have somebody for every park — that would be the ideal situation,” Rapozo said. “It would not only help us save costs but also help the parks stay in better shape. It would also allow the public to have more of an ownership in the spaces.”

When he first joined the Hanamaulu Hillsiders about four years ago, Clifford Lee said the park, at the time, “was unplayable, actually, and with no restrooms.”

“I was just wondering why no one was doing anything about going to the county to upgrade the park, if it was going to be used in the senior league program,” Lee said. “I asked our team if they would be willing to put in the labor time, so I could go in and see if we could get some funding from the county.”

After they were given supplies such as paint, gravel and wood, the team went to work and built a pavilion in the park and installed irrigation systems for the field.

“There are a lot of parks beside the one in Hanamaulu that need a facelift and other things besides that,” Lee said. “I feel the budget should be way higher than that so they can upkeep the parks properly.”

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