Voters give Honolulu zoo officials, supporters optimistic lift after funding amendment passing

Oahu voters spoke out on 20 county charter amendments on General Election Day Tuesday. They voted “yes” for many of them, but not all.

One of the charter amendments that did pass was the one that establishes a Honolulu Zoo fund. Fifty-three percent of voters gave their approval of the amendment.

For that, a portion of property tax revenues will now be used to help operate, repair and make improvements at the zoo.

This is a big step for the zoo to help get re-accreditation, and David Earles, the executive director of the Honolulu Zoo Society, says the group is excited voters said “yes.”

“The voters of the city of Honolulu have stated they support the zoo even as much, or more so, than we do as a society,” he said. “So when a donor wants to give something to the city-owned zoo, they do it through the nonprofit. That way, they get the tax deductions.”

The director of the Honolulu Zoo, Dr. Baird Fleming is also very excited for the zoo’s future following the amendment’s passing.

“We are absolutely elated,” said Dr. Fleming. “I think what that has done is that has shown that all of our work and all our passion and hard efforts that has gone into the zoo has really paid off. I think that the mayor backed the zoo, the city council backed the zoo and now with this amendment #9 passing, we see that the people, the community supports the zoo as well.”

The Honolulu Zoo lost its accreditation back in March, partly because the city does not have a consistent source of funding.

Zoo director Dr. Fleming says losing the accreditation didn’t have anything to do with the animals or the programs at the zoo, but several other concerns: “It has to do with budgetary shortfalls or at least inconsistencies in our budget. It had to do with the relationship between the zoo society, the city and the zoo. And it had to do with the loss of directors. We have a high rate of turnover in our zoo directors.”

He says the amendment will the zoo “stabilize one of those concerns.”

“It doesn’t do away with it, but really does help us stabilize and then we can focus a little more on moving forward on the other issues,” Dr. Fleming added.

Zoo patrons said Sunday they hope that with this new funding in place, the zoo can get re-accredited.

“We really love the zoo,” said Thijs Peekstok. “We love to come here. Some months, we come four times, other months, just once, but we really love it. I surely hope they get their accreditation back.”

And the fund could be used to pay for more animals. Patron Cresencio Camero says “the zoo is very important for any community, especially being here in Hawaii. We don’t have a lot of the animals in the wild, so I think it’s good, especially for the kids. They have something to look forward to.”

City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi says it’s important to have a good zoo with accreditation. But, however, she says “what concerns me is that there is also two other charter amendments that passed — one to set up an office for climate change and the department of land management — and those are going to be costly.”

As the budget committee chair, Kobayashi says they have to watch how the city spends money. “So with all this money going out, how are we going to keep the roads repaired, the parks repaired? There’s going to be big drain on our budget.”

The zoo director says if the zoo’s budget were to be solely based on the new amendment, the Honolulu zoo would actually be in a deficit.

“Our normal operating budget is $6.8 million, if this amendment, or now that this amendment has passed, the estimate we’ll be getting is roughly anywhere between $5 and $6 and a half million,” Dr. Fleming pointed out.

So he says it’s up to the mayor and city council to decide how to supplement the money it needs.

“It’s kind of up in the air, and too be honest, for the next maybe 3 to 5 years, we’re gonna have to really put our heads together and come up with some very creative ways to generate some more money so we can become less of a burden on the taxpayers and not require supplemental income above and beyond the amendment,” Dr. Fleming said.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell will soon be submitting a budget proposal to the City Council in March 2017. The Honolulu Zoo fund goes into effect on July 1, 2017.

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