Taxpayers cover costly tab of Washington Place compound

Washington Place

Paying electric, water and other utility bills in Hawaii is a hard pill to swallow for most families. As a taxpayer, you’re also footing the bill for utilities at the governor’s house, and the price tag may surprise you.

The utility bills for the two homes taxpayers maintain are just the start of the costs. There’s hundreds of thousands in other maintenance and staffing, and the total budget of the executive compound isn’t even easily tallied by the state itself.

Across the street from the Capitol sits Hawaii’s governor’s residence, originally built in 1847 as the personal residence of Capt. John Dominis, the mansion best known as the home of Queen Liliuokalani after she married the Captain’s son, John Owen Dominis. Behind Washington Place lies Hale Kia Aina, a second 21st-century addition in the compound.

Gov. Ben Cayetano and his wife spearheaded its construction to leave Washington Place as an historic venue. Since then Gov. Linda Lingle lived in the new home, so did Gov. Neil Abercrombie and now Gov. David Ige is unpacking there.

The lawns are manicured and watered, the facilities kept prim and proper. There’s air conditioning, surround security and they’ll even leave a light on for you in the middle of the day, ticking away at the meters that run up quite a tab for taxpayers. We found bills for $5,000 a month in electric, hundreds for multiple phone land lines, nearly $2,000 a month for water and sewer.

“Some people may say why are you making a big deal about this? We’re talking about a $25 billion dollar operating budget,” government-spending watchdog Sen. Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai, said when Always Investigating showed him the numbers. “But to the people paying for it, it’s significant and it means that they’re going to have to do without certain things to maintain this standard of living or these buildings.”

Not many can afford a standard of living at $500 a month for cable and Internet, but taxpayers buy it for the governor.

Always Investigating asked Slom if he was surprised to see a cable bill that’s double, or an electric bill that’s way higher, than what the general public might pay.

“Well, there are more moving parts in here too, more phone lines, this or that. You’re talking about two buildings so you do have expenditures,” Slom replied.

Those utilities are only the beginning. In recent years, Washington Place got an $844,000 renovation, tens of thousands in landscaping alone, a big re-carpet job and even a very costly scrub-down between occupants.

“I don’t think it’s one individual thing other than cleaning the showers for $4,000. That seems a little excessive,” Slom said as he reviewed the bills, “but look. Here I am. I’m Joe Homeowner. I’m looking through my own bills I’ve got to pay every month and I see these are like five times more and I’m already complaining about the extent of mine.”

The full extent isn’t readily known. Always Investigating searched purchasing notices one by one, but how about the price of everything from housekeepers to security to repair and maintenance and any anticipated capital costs?

No one in government has a bead on what they think they’ll have to spend every year. Over months of asking for the various bills and weeks trying to get the number out of the executive budget, the state is still tracking it down.

Once we know what the final tab is, so to speak, what can happen next?

“I think we can prioritize and see honestly if we need that, but you’ve put your finger on it. First, we need to know what the figures are,” Slom said.

Some other states don’t supply an executive residence, let alone carrying two on the taxpayers’ tab. There are nonprofit foundations set up to raise funds for the compound, but they bring in a fraction of the operating costs. Volunteers put in time too, but the rest relies on all of us to pay.

“I think people are going to have to start looking more closely at where the money goes and the expenditures,” Slom said. “I have confidence in our new governor though. I think our governor will probably take a look at some of these things and have the ability to trim them.”

Always Investigating told the governor’s office about the extent of the costs and asked to talk about it. The governor declined an interview but his chief of staff, Mike McCartney, said, “Gov. Ige is committed to embracing change and making government more efficient. He will look at the options for reducing operating and maintenance costs for all state-owned property, including Washington Place and Hale Kia Aina.”

View the following bills for Washington Place and Hale Kia Aina:

Search for other expenses related to the governor’s compound via the State Procurement Office’s website.

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