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Don Cunningham: News

Statement on Zoological Situation
January 22, 2009

I have held back from offering my views and position on the impending bankruptcy of the Lehigh Valley Zoo until I had a full compliment of the facts and financials before me.

Toward that end, for more than a month, my administrative staff has worked aggressively with the zoo’s administrative staff, it’s board,  county commissioners and reviewed the financial records to get a full and clear  picture of the past, present and future situation at our zoo.

The impending bankruptcy of the Zoological Society is a complex situation. And, when faced with complicated decisions that involve the expenditure of public funds, one is best to not take a knee-jerk approach or a passionate approach to decision making.

n the end this is a business decision. It should not be based on who loves animals more or less. In matters regarding the zoo and animals, there is a lot of passion and nostalgia. There is a long and deep history regarding this property and some of these animals on county land that dates back to General Harry Trexler.

This county has long supported this zoo, whether it operated under its current name or its previous name (the Trexler Game Preserve) or whether it operated as a county department or as a subsidized tenant on county property. During the last ten years, under both operating models, county taxpayers have spent an average of about $435,000 a year to run the zoo. It was a little more when the county ran it ($587,000) and a little less on average ($438,000) as a subsidized tenant on county property.

The issue of county financial support is not new. Every county budget for the last two decades has seen financial support for the zoo, some more, some less – but on average $520,000 per year. The issue of closing the zoo is not new either. Five years ago that was debated. And, the Board of Commissioners decided then to develop a new, privatized model that got the county directly out of zoo operations by leasing the facility to the Zoological Society. The idea was a sound one. But, the five year plan that was put in place was based more on wishful thinking than a sound business plan.

 Therefore, today the Zoological Society will be bankrupt next month and the facility will close, leaving more than 170 animals on county government property in the hands of us in the dead of winter.

What is new is the reality of paying for the cost to close this facility - the cost to care for the animals until a new home can be found, the cost to find that home and get the animals there, as well as the continued cost of maintaining the herds of bison, elk and Palomino horses, which the county owns. We own a total of about 30 animals.

The cost to do that this year alone is a little more than $1 million. Over a five year period, the total cost of this option is $1.8 million since its will cost us at least $200,000 a year for our herd animals and maintenance. Those animals, today, are cared for by the Zoological Society.

 Recognizing the financial cost of the Zoological Society’s bankruptcy – not to mention the loss of a treasured facility, referred to by some as the “jewel of the county’s park system” – we challenged the zoo leadership and board to develop a conservative five year business model based on market reality and a better focus, including what would be needed from the county to support that. We challenged them to squeeze out costs and focus on what works.

There are three guideposts I said were crucial in this plan:

  1. That we move away from the model of a regional zoo created five year ago that projects the impression of competing with the Philadelphia Zoo.
  2. That we develop a realistic budget with conservative attendance and revenue and cost projections.
  3. That the request for county investment be a number that will make a realistic budget work.

I will not support a subsidization number made up by politicians that doesn’t work in a business plan. That’s precisely what was developed five years ago and has led to the current situation.

I also will not support spending county tax dollars on a product that is too small and too ineffective to make it worthy of county support. I don’t think we need a petting zoo with barnyard animals on county property.

And, I will not support anything other than the proper care and transition of the animals on our property in the event that we are not granted the ability to continue a zoo operation.

This county leadership took the right approach when making a financial commitment to minor league baseball. We partnered with the Philadelphia Phillies to land an AAA affiliated team in the star studded International League. We did not invest those tax dollars into an unaffiliated team that played a lesser brand of baseball. My position is that if we aren’t willing to do this right than the correct decision is to do nothing at all.

Toward that end, there is a plan in front of us to restructure this facility into a new Lehigh Valley Children’s Zoo that focuses on its core audience, children 3-10 years old and their parents and grandparents. Nearly half of all visitors to the zoo in recent years have come from school bus trips. Much of the zoo’s programming is focused on education, both in educating kids about biology, animals and the natural world and providing teacher re-education credits in how to teach biology and environmental topics. There are existing solid partnership with school districts, environmental groups and other science and education institutions that can be made even stronger.

Today, we have in front of us a five year plan – based on conservative estimates of 1 percent annual growth and annual cost increases actually tied to inflation. There is no dream like vision of huge numbers of new visitors or magical donor dollars falling from the sky, such as the plan five years ago.

The plan would require a five year commitment of $1,825,000 in county money – just about the same number it will cost us during the same period of time to close the facility.

This week the Administration will send to the Commissioners two ordinances. One ordinance will ask for the $525,000 this year to keep the zoo open and a lease extension calling for $325,000 the next four years for a new Lehigh Valley Children’s Zoo. This figure is $200,000 below the average county spending of $525,000 during the last ten years. The other ordinance, which will be necessary if the first is rejected, will call for an appropriation of $1,014,000 this year to close the facility with recognition that future budgets will need a line item of $200,000 to care for the herds and maintain the facility.

My Administration and I will support the ordinance to invest in a new Lehigh Valley Children’s Zoo.  This is the clear choice from a fiscal perspective and a social perspective.

When it is cost effective, communities and governments need to invest in the quality of life assets that make a region a special place to live, to work, to raise a family and to visit. We have understood this for a long time in Lehigh County. That’s why we have this facility, the Trexlertown Velodrome, Coca Cola Park and dozens of other quality of life assets that receive our support.

This plan will not generate the need for a tax increase. In fact, the additional $195,000 in new spending that we would be needed from our 2009 budget can be taken from the surplus we generated from beating our budget projections in 2008.

It’s imperative that we make decisions based on good business analysis but that in the process we keep an eye towards maintaining the soul of our county and our community. In this case, we can do both.

Other Resources:

2009 Zoo Options

2009 Zoo Ordinances

www.lehighdems.org

 

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