WAILUKU - Mayor Alan Arakawa is proposing to privatize the county's PALS program, saying a nonprofit organization could do a better job running the "Play and Learn Sessions" for out-of-school kids.
In his annual budget proposal, Arakawa said the county could save money on employee fringe benefits and overhead costs by outsourcing the program that hires as many as 424 seasonal workers each year. Contracting with an outside agency also would allow Department of Parks and Recreation employees to focus full time on other county recreation programs instead of spending each summer overseeing PALS.
"We're feeling the private sector may be able to do this much better," Arakawa said last week.
PALS provides cultural and recreational activities for children between the ages of 5 and 12 during the summer and other island school vacation periods. Last year, more than 2,600 children participated in the program at 31 sites on Maui, Molokai and Lanai.
But the shift to a privatized program actually would cost the county more money, at least in the first year.
Arakawa is requesting $2.1 million for PALS in 2013, up from $1.6 million this year.
Budget Director Sandy Baz said the initial increase stemmed from the county being unable to contract with an outside provider until after this summer's session. That means the budget for the coming year would include funds both for the county to run the program this summer, and for a yearlong contract that would be issued in the fall, resulting in some overlap in costs.
While Arakawa's budget proposal maintains the shift to a private provider would save the county as much as $1 million per year on the program, Baz clarified that that estimate was in comparison to the inflated 2013 number.
In reality, he said he expected the program would eventually cost around $1.4 million in the hands of a private provider, depending on the bids that come in.
That's a significantly smaller reduction, although Baz noted the county would see additional savings in fringe benefits and employee overhead costs, which are recorded in a different section of the county's budget.
Arakawa said organizations like the YMCA, Boys & Girls Club or other nonprofit youth center programs could provide a better service at a lower cost because such a group would have greater expertise in hiring, screening, training and supervising employees to work with children.
"It will be much more efficient," Arakawa said.
Mike Morris, president and chief executive officer of Maui Family YMCA, agreed.
"I love it," he said. "I think it's exactly the kind of partnership we should be looking at in these economic times."
Maui Family YMCA currently operates an "almost identical program" at its Kanaloa Avenue facility that serves around 200 to 225 children each summer; and the national network of YMCA clubs is the largest provider of after-school care in the country, he noted.
"We know how to work with school-aged kids," he said. "We've done it for many, many years, so we have experience."
Maui County Council members had a mixed reaction to the proposal.
Council Member Don Couch, who previously served on the board of the Boys & Girls Club of Maui County, thought it was a good idea.
"There are entities out there who already do this," he said. "Why not give them a shot and say, 'You guys do what you do best.' "
The change would save taxpayers money because parks department employees could continue working on their regular duties over the summer, he added.
But Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Joe Pontanilla was more skeptical.
"I know these are established nonprofit organizations, but in the end I look at it as something the county can continue to do itself," he said.
"I think it's a great program, and we really need to keep it alive for our working families," said Council Member Elle Cochran. "This program offers much-needed and affordable support to our community. I would hope that if it is provided by another entity, the same level of service and affordability would be maintained."
"I want to hear more," said Council Member Mike Victorino. "I think it's an idea whose maybe time has come, but I'm not sold yet."
In addition to providing child care for working families and enriching activities for youngsters, PALS has been a summer job for thousands of local high school and college students over the years, he noted. That's something he'd like to continue.
"This has been a good training ground for a lot of young people in this community for many years," he said.
County spokesman Rod Antone said he was one of those young people, participating in the earlier "Summer Fun" program both as a young child and later as an employee.
"I had a great time," he said. "I was at Paia Community Center with my friends. We went to the beach and did arts and crafts, and it was like recess all day. Later on in college, I came back and the same friends and I were Summer Fun workers, and we had a lot of fun and made a little money."
He said the program itself wouldn't change under the mayor's proposal.
"It's a great service for the community, and it'll continue to be a great service," he said. "It'll just be run by another entity out there."
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.