HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Hawaii News Now investigation revealed that Hawaii Community College failed to spend a majority of its student government and activities fees last year, leaving $173,000 leftover, alarming state lawmakers. Those unspent funds are in addition to $245,000 in publication, recreation and campus center fees for which students said they got little or nothing.
Full-time students at UH's Hawaii Community College in Hilo pay $36 a semester for two fees, funding student activities and student government.
According to data released by the college, 80 percent of the activity fee went unspent, with $104,000 left over in 2013.
In addition, 52 percent of the student government fee also wasn't spent in 2013, with $68,000 carried over to the next year.
Hawaii News Now showed the figures to State House Higher Education Chair Isaac Choy -- who's an accountant -- and he's alarmed.
"As I look at the numbers, the cash balances are extremely high," Choy said, who estimated that 10 percent of unspent reserves would be acceptable.
Choy said he told the college's administrators – including Chancellor Noreen Yamane and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Jason Cifra -- to consider lowering the fees since they're not being fully spent.
"It's very unfair. You have to spend. The students that pay for it, you should spend it on services for them or reduce the fee," Choy said.
Senate President Donna Kim said a fee reduction and perhaps even a refund should be in order.
"For them to be collecting these kinds of fees and have these huge balances, they need to give the money back to the students who paid them," Kim said.
In a statement, Hawaii Community College spokesman Thatcher Moats essentially blamed last year's student government, even though administrators are ultimately responsible for the money spent.
"Student leadership changes from year to year. That means there can be variation in how active the student leadership is and the funds they expend," Moats said in the statement.
Asked if the college should lower the fees or not collect them for a year since so much has been left over, Moats said, "These are steps that could be taken, but the college would take steps in this area in close consultation with student leadership."
But former student government leaders said administrators and staff have refused to disclose student fee revenues and expenses to them for the last two years.
"All we want to know is where is that money going and is it benefiting the students?" said Marieta Carino, the former student activities treasurer at the school.
She and the college's former student government president, Eric Aranug, were voted off the student government about one month ago after they began complaining to UH administrators, lawmakers, Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the Board of Regents that they were being stonewalled in their attempts to receive financial information about student fees and expenses. That's a charge that Moats, the spokesman for the college, denied.
The school government's treasurer last school year, David Canning, said he too, was removed from the board last spring after he took his complaints about financial mismanagement at the school public.
This school year, student leaders have "greatly increased" the number of activities available to students, Moats said. He predicted that student activity expenses will increase by about 300 percent by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
"It's just sad that every time you turn around there's something else that's troubling happening at the University of Hawaii," Kim said. "I don't know who's asleep at the wheel, why these things aren't being addressed when they are raised to them."
Kim said she will ask the Board of Regents to take action.
"The regents need to do something. They need to be called to action to take a look at this. And how many other campuses are doing this? We have no clue," Kim said.
Choy said he spoke to UH Interim President David Lassner and UH Board of Regents Vice Chair James Lee about the unspent fees and told them he's concerned about the problem across the UH system.
"Why do they have to take the money in the first place?" asked State Sen. Sam Slom, the Senate's lone Republican. "If they're not going to spend it, and if they can't justify the spending, Lord knows the students need the money and we keep raising the tuition on them to pay for our other excesses at the university, let them have their own money."