The county spent over $1 million on playground improvements in South Maui in 2021 and the trend is continuing
In 2020, Maui County set a new record when it spent $755,128 on the Kula Park playground. Then in April of this year, the county spent over $1 million on Kihei’s playgrounds, replacing the equipment and fall surfacing at Kalama Park and installing a shade at Kalama and South Maui Community Park. These mounting budgets do not include the assessments, planning, and bureaucracy that precede the projects themselves.
In total, the South Maui upgrades cost the county $1,114,228. Central Construction Incorporated, the contractor awarded the job, said that labor on the combined projects cost $290,228, while the surfacing and shade structure at Kalama Park cost $350,000 and the shade structure at South Maui Community Park cost $150,000. Central Construction told Maui Times that $162,000 was spent on playground resurfacing at South Maui Community Park, but the Parks Department (twice) stated by email that the project did not include a fall surfacing. When the budget discrepancy was directly referenced by Maui Times, parks director Karla Peters said that the project had included some “fall protection patch work” at South Maui Community Park.
The Parks Department did not provide copies of the bids or budget details, whereas other counties obliged. Hawaii Island provided MauiTimes with copies of all 15 playground project bids that have been contracted in the past decade.
Other counties have also managed to keep their costs significantly lower than Maui. Kauai’s newest playgrounds, completed in 2018, only cost $79,219 and $122,780. Hawaiʻi Island’s most expensive playground project to date was the $440,677 replacement of Kailua Park playground in 2014. Honolulu County did not fulfill any of the three relevant public records requests submitted by MauiTimes (and in one instance asked for $470 to produce the information requested).
All four of the playgrounds installed by the County of Maui since 2018 have cost over half a million dollars. The County Council’s 2022 adopted budget allocates $2.75 million over four years for improvements to playgrounds. The $600,000 allocated for 2022 is being used to replace existing playground equipment and fall surfacing and install a shade structure at Honokowai Park Playground.
Dave Hamil, owner of Pacific Recreation, the company that installed the fall surfacing and playground equipment at Kalama Park, said that labor costs on county projects tend to be two times higher than on private projects because County projects require that workers be paid “prevailing wages.”
The prevailing wages for an asphalt concrete material transfer in Hawaiʻi as of Sept. 2021 is $82.49 per hour. A “driller” is set to earn $63.84 per hour, and a “painter” $68.99. Thus, the labor costs of installing a shade structure at a mid-size playground on Maui now run taxpayers over $120,000.
Aside from labor, county playgrounds are more expensive than private ones because they usually include more infrastructure: sidewalks, irrigation for water fountains, parking lots, and other site work required to comply with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessibility standards.
Hamil says that playgrounds are also simply becoming more expensive because “raw material costs have skyrocketed and literally everything has to be shipped into Hawaii.” Steel, plastics, resins, and dyes have increased in price while lead times have stretched and freight costs ballooned, sometimes leading to 200 percent increases in product prices according to Hamil. “When you take all of those things into account, along with the bureaucratic nature of having to get consultants and architects and go to public bid—that probably takes 10 to 20 percent of the overall project cost right there.”
Last year, upon realizing that there are no public playgrounds in Makawao and no toddler playgrounds closer than Kahului, upcountry mom Arianna Feinberg initiated a push for a new playground at Eddie Tam. Despite support from Councilmember Mike Molina, testimony from other moms from the neighborhood, and 165 signatures on her petition, a Makawao playground did not make it into the Parks Department’s plans for 2022 or 2023.
Unlike the Kula Park playground, which Hamil said required substantial site work including grading to make the land level, the addition of a playground at Eddie Tam would be relatively low maintenance if it could be built where the park’s old playground sat. “I remember it from when I was a kid,” Feinberg said, “it’s a great site, there is a road leading right up to it, there are bathrooms right there, and there’s this big beautiful tree that gives natural shade.”
Feinberg emailed the Parks Department in May to ask that any of the $600,000 allocated for 2022 not spent on the Honokowai project be put towards the planning of a toddler playground at Eddie Tam. Ten years ago, when playgrounds often hovered in the $200,000 range, a request like this would have been reasonable even for the county, but Hamil says expenses have at least doubled since then.
However, he conceded, “if somebody wants to just put in a relatively small neighborhood playground and it doesn’t need all the bells and whistles that are often in county projects, that would definitely lower the cost.”
The playground at the Roots School in Haiku was built by Pacific Recreation for $100,000 in 2017. The playground includes a fall surface and capacity for 45 kids ages 5-12. Hamil said the playground should have cost $150,000 but he had agreed to work with the school to utilize a donation from a non-profit. Private jobs like the Roots School playground are usually done by a single contractor, whereas for county projects, a general contractor’s bid is accepted and subcontractors are hired from there, which, again, adds cost.
Councilwoman Kelly King got her start in county politics when she spearheaded efforts to build “the first super playground on the island” in Kihei in 1989. King negotiated a public-private partnership and raised half the funds, which the county matched. “The whole thing cost us close to $100,000,” King said. “They recently put a playground in the Kula Park that cost close to a million—which seems outrageous,” she said.
King said she suspects more lax code specificity and insurance regulations helped keep costs low in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when she was the driving force behind three new Maui playgrounds. When Feinberg implored the Parks Department to add a Makawao toddler playground to the 2022 agenda, parks director Peters said the department would plan to do its “due diligence” in 2023, and if that went well, the project could be slated for 2024.
According to Peters, “due diligence involves confirming this project fits with [the department’s] long-term plans for Eddie Tam and for the Makawao/Pukalani/Kula Community Plan Area. We will also need to review the project for permitting, accessibility, and archeological/cultural issues,” she said.
The Kula, Keo Kea, Pukalani, and Haiku playgrounds are all designed for children ages 5-12, which means toddlers like Feinberg’s son need to be watched closely by parents for “older kids zooming around and knocking them over,” and hovered over so that they don’t fall from heights. Feinberg, an advocate of independent play, would like to see an enclosed toddler section that would allow kids under five to play autonomously.
“Itʻs not just about physical play, it’s about socialization.” Kelly King said of the importance for playgrounds for kids of all ages, especially during a pandemic when they may or may not be interacting with other children at school.
“It is kind of astounding how much they cost, you could build an entire home with that,” Feinberg said of the playground budgets in recent years. “I’m not asking for some big, crazy playground. And I know it’s more expensive now, but can’t we build a modest playground at a site that doesn’t need a lot of work and not spend $700,000 to do it?”