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Sports & Fitness // Hot Air
Steve Murray

UH Budget Now A Community Concern

It seems University of Hawaii athletics just can’t catch a break. One day after announcing its 2014 recruiting class – typically a high time for optimism – athletics director Ben Jay reported to the Board of Regents (BOR) that his department is facing a $2 million deficit for the soon-to-be-ending fiscal year.

Bad news is never welcome, and coming less than a year after an upper campus bailout forgave $14.7 million in athletic department debt, the news could-n’t be worse.

In his testimony to the BOR, Jay said the lack of revenue could force layoffs of some of the department’s 12 part-time and temporary employees. Manoa chancellor Tom Apple, who also was at the meeting, believes current fundraising efforts will produce new revenue streams, and that hopefully new agreements with Aloha Stadium and Hawaii Tourism Authority, among others, will produce even more money for the department. Also on the table are higher ticket prices and a raise in mandatory student fees.

Of these options, the last one is most troubling.

To paraphrase a Facebook comment by the Star-Advertiser‘s brave and handsome Dave Reardon, if UH athletics belongs to the state, as we have always been told, it is not fair to force students to pick up the entertainment tab for the entire populous.

He also correctly mentioned that working students – who represent a large portion of those attending classes – already subsidize the university through their tax dollars.

Last year Apple said that if the state wanted Division I athletics, it would have to pay for it.

He was right then and remains so.

It’s time for a real and in-depth public discussion on the future of UH athletics. No longer is it acceptable to pass along costs to those disinterested in attending games, or raiding funds that could be used in other, more important areas.

To find a real solution, backdoor meetings and executive sessions must give way to open discussions with all stakeholders to determine the fate of the athletic program.

Saving the athletic department is going to take more than finding so-far unidentified donors and ticket buyers willing to pay more for an often uninspiring product – it’s going to take a tax increase.

That’s going to be a tough sell.

Hawaii already has one of the highest tax rates in the country, and according to a Feb. 7 Star-Advertiser reader poll, most residents just don’t care that much.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents said it is not worth keeping a D-I football team if it continues to be a financial drain. Certainly, the poll is not scientific, and 3,782 voters (as of Feb. 7) doesn’t constitute a majority of fans and voters. But the message is clear. This commitment to disinterest follows the Sept. 24, 2013, poll that found that 58 percent of respondents had little or no confidence in Norm Chow being able to improve the football team.

UH is at a crossroads. The cost of running an athletic department continues to grow, and a high cost of living, HD TVs and a crumbling and crowded transportation system make traveling to games more difficult than it was 20 years ago, when Aloha Stadium was a center of community involvement. This isn’t an issue unique to Hawaii, it’s just more pronounced. Few communities boast a median sale price of $629,000 for previously owned single-family homes.

A year ago, USA Today reported that just 23 of 228 public universities generated profits greater than expenses. Of those 23, 16 received some sort of government subsidy. In the last two years, UH posted a deficit of more than $5 million (based on this year’s projections).

The athletic department’s current budget sits at $34 million and needs an uptick of $2 million per annum just to keep up.

History strongly suggests that’s not likely to happen.

If the people of Hawaii want a D-I athletic department at the state’s flagship university, they will have to pay for it. It’s not as outrageous as it sounds.

Based on U.S. Census Bureau statistics, a tax increase of .025 percent would generate, on a median household income of $67,492, more than $7.5 million annually for the university. That’s an additional $16.87 per year.

Is it worth the investment?

It’s up to you.

smurray@midweek.com

Twitter: @SteveMurray84

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