The observatories pay no rent?

There are two thing that opponents neglect to mention in this accusation. The observatories do pay the state money, quite a bit actually, about $4.4 million per year. Opponents also fail to understand why that $1 rent came about and the history of astronomy on the mauna.

The Keck telescopes at sunrise
The Keck telescopes at sunrise

In often nasty accusations, the $1 rent is used to imply that the observatories get a free ride, costing the state and county, and therefore the taxpayers. This is the part that is completely false, the observatories not only pay their share of costs, but have significantly benefited the island economy in very direct ways.

If we look back to the 1960’s and early 1970’s island leaders were desperate to attract new opportunities to the island. The island economy was reeling, the combined effects of tsumani and the decline of the sugarcane plantations were devastating. Local county and business leaders were looking for something that could provide employment and opportunity to residents. At the same time astronomers were looking at Mauna Kea as a place to build telescopes.

A deal was struck to bring the observatories here, in exchange for a token rent the observatories would provide a substantial amount of observing time to the University of Hawaii, and locate facilities and headquarters on island.

The observatories currently provide about five hundred good jobs and put about $100 million into the local economy each year. That money is responsible for hundreds of additional jobs at the various local businesses that supply and contract with the observatories.

The deal struck by state and local leaders several decades ago worked, resulting in exactly what they hoped for. For their part the observatories have held to their part of the deal.

A couple decades later it is clear that this deal will expire. Negotiations for TMT resulted in a figure of $1 million per year rent on the land. When the leases on the existing observatories run out in the near future, substantial rents are certainly going to be part of the negotiations.

The second part of this is the accusation that the observatories pay nothing to the state. What is overlooked here is that rent for the land is not the only form of payment.

What the observatories do pay for is the operations of Mauna Kea Support Services. This is clearly shown in the 2017 audit of the university’s involvement with Mauna Kea. Reading the audit you will see $4.4 million paid by the observatories to the MKSS budget, while the state general fund paid zero.

It is only fair that the observatories do pay for MKSS, they are the primary users of MKSS services. Of course, everyone else who comes to the mauna, and the mauna itself are also beneficiaries.

The monies pay for road maintenance, grading and snowplows in the winter. The funds also cover operation of the visitor facilities, and importantly the Mauna Kea Rangers. Basically all of the on-the-mauna services are operated by MKSS.

Considering everything here it is clear that the $1 per year rent is simply not the whole story, that contrary to the usual accusations the observatories do pay their way.

Result: True, but not the whole story

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

8 thoughts on “The observatories pay no rent?”

  1. I think it’s also important to point out that the observing time the university receives attracts some of the best astronomers from around the world to work at the university and pass on their knowledge to students – in many cases knowledge from the forefront of astronomical research. Many students at UH are involved in current research projects borne by this arrangement; a few will go on to become astronomers, but many more go into other fields where this unique education gives them the skills they need to succeed.

    1. All very true. I tend to keep the arguments in the posts quite direct and deliberately leave out some stuff that is also true, but may be more than I want to cover in one post.

  2. Without the observatories, IfA would not exist. Astronomy is one of the pillars of excellence at UHM that is required to be a top-tier research university, and brings in ~$20m/year in external grants. I am not sure how that is calculated into the UHERO numbers.

  3. You should also point out that the $1/year rent was done without going through the proper legal channels and was intended as a way of avoiding legal requirements that the observatories pay more than $1/year. (See the 1998 state audit for details).

    Sure, the observatories pay for the services that they use, but that argument boils down to “Walmart shouldn’t pay rent on that state land because they pay for their sewer”. Until the observatories pay a fair rate for using the mountain (as TMT will do), this will remain a bone of contention.

    1. There is some truth to your statement, the token lease was a political move to draw the observatories to Hawaii to stimulate an economy reeling from the loss of sugar and repeated tsunami. On the other hand the practical result of the payments made directly to OMKM is that 100% of the monies go directly to the mauna and nothing else, particularly not to the infamously corrupt OHA money pit.

      The cash pays for more than the services used by the observatories. Read again, the biologists monitoring invasive species and the threatened wekui bug, the archaeologists that do the surveys and monitoring, the rangers that keep tourists out of trouble, the road used by observatories, local families and religious practitioners alike, all paid for by the observatories, and a lesser extent the commercial tours.

      1. The biologists have to monitor the weiku bug in large part because the astronomers destroyed 1/4 of its habitat while constructing one of their observatories. (Fortunately, the population has rebounded since then.) The archeologists do the surveys in large part to ensure that the astronomers don’t tear down yet more sacred sites. The rangers are there because the road built for the astronomers allows unprepared people up to the summit. So that cash basically pays for some of the damage that the astronomers do to the mountain.

        1. Inaccurate statement, the 1/4 of the habitat proved to be false when further surveys were done. The weiku bug is found on almost all cinder cones in the science reserve, a lot more habitat than originally thought, thus was not listed as an endangered species as was being considered. Ironically the best place to find weiku today? Along the drip line of the Keck 1 dome, right in the middle of that “destroyed” habitat, where they thrive.

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