After more than an hour of debate Wednesday night, Lehigh County commissioners voted to delay any decision resolving future funding of Lehigh Valley Zoo until December.
The zoo’s operators, as well as Lehigh County Executive Matthew Croslis, want commissioners to fund it for six years.
But several of the nine commissioners – perhaps a majority of them – only want to fund it one year at a time.
“We need your help,” Rick Molchany, the zoo’s president and CEO, told commissioners. “I’d love it to be 9-0 that you vote to support us for the next six years.”
But commissioners voted 5-4 to defer any action on the six-year funding proposal until Dec. 11.
“Shame,” said zoo supporters in the audience after the vote. “Unbelievable.”
Voting for the delay were Lisa Scheller, Vic Mazziotti, Scott Ott, Michael Schware and Thomas Creighton.
Voting against it were Dan McCarthy, Brad Osborne, Percy Dougherty and David Jones.
Schware made the successful motion to defer a vote on the proposal until December.
“To come to the right decision, we need more information,” he said. “I would like all the facts. That means having the 2013 audited financial statement.”
But before the vote Molchany told commissioners the results of that audit won’t be available until January.
After the meeting, Schware said Molchany will be able to provide commissioners with draft financial information from that audit by December.
No one mentioned it during the meeting, but the delay means commissioners won’t decide future funding for the zoo until after the November municipal election.
Creighton, Dougherty and Schware all face opponents in their bids to be re-elected county commissioner. And Ott is running against Tom Muller, the county’s director of administration, for county executive.
If commissioners approve the six-year funding deal for Lehigh Valley Zoo in December, the county will give the zoo $277,500 a year from 2014 through 2016, then $242,500 from 2017 through 2019.
Those numbers include $92,500 a year for the care of the county’s bison, elk and Palomino horses that roam the hilly terrain of Trexler Nature Preserve, where the zoo is located.
Not including that $92,500, the zoo is asking the county for $185,000 a year from 2014 to 2016, then $150,000 from 2017 through 2019.
Molchany told commissioners if the zoo continues to be financially successful, it may request thousands of dollars less from the county during those six years. He confirmed the amount of money needed could be as low as $115,000 a year.
“This gives the zoo stability so they can go out and raise money,” said Dougherty.
Dougherty said as recently as 2009, the zoo was getting $525,000 a year from the county, and before that the county was contributing more than $1 million a year to the zoo.
“Very few zoos in this country can pay for themselves,” said Dougherty. “Many of them are a big loss for the municipality or county where they are located.”
“Nationally, zoos depend on governmental funds,” confirmed Molchany. “Very few do not.”
Even commissioners who oppose funding the zoo for six years repeatedly stressed they are not opposed to giving it $277,500 in 2014.
County executive proposed six-year deal
Croslis told commissioners that Molchany initially only asked him for a three-year agreement, but he was the one who suggested a six-year agreement.
The county executive said the zoo deserves more than year-by-year funding, as well as “more of our trust.”
“This stability will allow them to continue to build on their successes, which have been phenomenal so far,” said Croslis. “The zoo is a perfect example of a public/private partnership that’s working.”
Croslis also said the county has a responsibility to the zoo, “because the zoo was ours. It was started by the county.”
The zoo is on leased county property within the Trexler Nature Preserve, which is near Schnecksville.
Molchany said the county has a history of supporting the zoo with multi-year deals.
“We’re reducing the dependency on county funding,” said Molchany. “The zoo is doing well.” But he indicated philanthropic donors want to know the zoo will be around for the next six years, saying: “Nobody wants to donate to a loser. Help me to help funders to have faith.”
Zoo supporters handed out Lehigh Valley Zoo buttons at the commissioners meeting. Among zoo employees who stressed its attributes to the commissioners were general curator Richard Rosevear and development and marketing director Shirley Kline. Also speaking for the zoo was John Cigliano, who serves its board of directors.
No one in the audience spoke in support of only funding the zoo for one year.
Dougherty, sponsor of the proposed ordinance offering six years of funding to the zoo, proudly wore one of those buttons on his lapel. He called the zoo, and the Trexler Nature Preserve where it is located, the crown jewel of Lehigh County.
Zoo under attack?
Dougherty said he has to step forward every couple of years when the non-profit zoo comes under attack. He expressed hope that a compromise has been reached this year that would avoid “a large stand-off. I hope this is going to go relatively smoothly.”
“The zoo is not under attack here,” countered Schware. He said his two young daughters love gong to the zoo. ”We can disagree on how we want to move forward, but our commitment to the zoo isn’t in question. We want to see the zoo succeed.”
“This is not an attack on the zoo,” echoed Mazziotti.
Mazziotti said the proposed county budget for 2014 has a $10 million deficit. He said the administration proposes balancing that budget by taking $10 million from the county’s $25 million “rainy day fund,” leaving $15 million in that emergency fund.
“I think everybody agrees that is an unsustainable path,” said Mazziotti. “We can’t do that again next year for the 2015 budget. In that light, it would not be prudent to enter into a six-year agreement with anybody. It might even be irresponsible to take that action. We have a larger responsibility. We’ve got a $10 million hole to fill, starting early next year.”
Molchany argued that Lehigh Valley Zoo is an important “quality of life” asset for the county that attracts residents and businesses, ultimately increasing tax revenues to the county. He also said the zoo offers more than entertainment, serving as an educational institution and one that works to help save species from extinction.
In a previous meeting with commissioners on the zoo budget, Molchany said many people – including potential donors -- incorrectly assume the zoo is fully funded by the county. In fact, the county only contributes 10 percent of the zoo’s budget, according to Dougherty.
Molchany also told commissioners a one-year deal is not a vote of confidence in the zoo, much less a commitment to ensure its success.
Molchany said 50 to 60 percent of the zoo’s non-salary expenses support Lehigh County businesses, such as local farmers who provide hay and a grain and feed company that supplies food of the animals.
Creighton, who also wore a zoo button, said he had received 256 e-mails from people who support the zoo. “We want the zoo to be self-supporting,” said Creighton. “We want it to live without the county’s help.”
Molchany repeatedly was praised at the meeting for the work he has done to ensure the zoo’s success. Schware said Molchany and the zoo board took a financially failing operation and are making it profitable in just a few years.
Creighton said he believes Molchany should give himself more credit “because I feel he could have the zoo self-supporting in less than two or three years.”
A way out of a six-year deal?
Dougherty suggested that, even if the six-year funding plan for the zoo is passed, commissioners still could review and, if necessary, cut the zoo’s annual allocation at budget time. “Any budget is an ordinance and it can supersede a previous ordinance.” But he said commissioners should do that only “if the financial problems of the county get worse.”
That was confirmed by Croslis, who said there is the opportunity to review every year “if things change drastically from the county’s perspective.”
But Ott said the main argument made for the extended contract is it provides stability for the zoo to go into the community and raise funds. ”If we were to approve a long-term deal with the understanding that annually we could renege upon that deal, you lose the impact of having such a deal,” said Ott.