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.

4 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.

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