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County commissioners table funding for Lehigh Valley Zoo

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 25 2013 06:12:35 AM CDT
Updated On: Apr 25 2013 08:54:24 PM CDT
Baby bison
NORTH WHITEHALL TWP., Pa. -

Unless the Lehigh Valley Zoological Society gets $280,000 a year from Lehigh County, it no longer can operate or care for animals in Lehigh Valley Zoo, including the bison, elk and palomino horses living in the Trexler-Lehigh County Nature Preserve that surrounds the zoo.

But rather than taking steps toward approving the zoo’s funding request, Lehigh County commissioners shelved it with a 5-3 vote Wednesday night.

The results could be catastrophic if the zoo does not get that money, warned Richard Molchany, the zoo’s president and CEO.

“People in Lehigh County have a special place in their hearts for the zoo,” said Commissioner Dan McCarthy. “And the preserve around it is a jewel of Lehigh County.”

The zoo is requesting $280,000 in annual operating support from the county for six years, beginning in 2014. Commissioners who tabled the bill authorizing that funding said it is too much money for too many years. No timetable was set for when a revised bill might come before them for a vote.

Even those who voted against the funding proposal expressed support for the zoo. They just want it to become self-sufficient, something Molchany repeatedly said he cannot guarantee ever will be possible.

Of the $280,000 a year proposed for the zoo, $95,000 would be used for care of the bison, elk and palominos on the preserve. The other $185,000 would constitute about 10 percent of the zoo’s annual budget.

“The reality here is simple,” Molchany told commissioners. “I don’t want your money. But I need your money. I need your help.

“You have to make a decision. You’re either going to support us or you’re not. But if you are, make your voices heard. Because this good. Your children, your grandchildren and maybe all of you can have a fond memory at some point in your life of Lehigh Valley Zoo.”

Commissioner Scott Ott told Molchany: “Me thinks thou doth protest too much.”

Molchany noted the request for $280,000 a year is less the $325,000 the zoo has been getting from the county for the last four years.

McCarthy said at one time the county paid for everything at the zoo but could not afford to keep doing that. “There has been a significant decrease in the county commitment.” He said asking the county to contribute only 10 percent of the zoo’s operating costs is “remarkable.”

The zoo spends $1,200 a day just on animal care, according to information provided by Molchany.

Most zoos lose money

The 1,100-acre nature reserve, originally called Trexler Game Preserve, was founded in 1906 by local industrialist and philanthropist Gen. Harry C. Trexler to provide a place where bison and elk could thrive. The county has owned the property since 1935. Eventually a zoo was created in the heart of the preserve and upgraded several times. That zoo was taken over by the non-profit zoological society in 2004. It is now home to nearly 300 animals and draws more than 125,000 annual visitors.

“I’m a firm believer in the mission of the zoo,” said Commissioner Percy Dougherty. “But I will be the first one to admit there aren’t many counties out there that have a zoo. So one of the primary questions we have to face every time this comes up [is] should we be in the business or not?”

Dougherty said most zoos are money-losing businesses, adding the Philadelphia Zoo has nearly gone bankrupt a number of times. But he also said Lehigh County has a long history of supporting the local zoo, because it contributes to the quality of life for county residents, as well as offering an educational component. “I’m all in favor of continuing this.”

Dougherty complimented the zoological society for bringing expenses under control, but suggested more can be done. He acknowledged the zoo is trying to increase attendance, but added: “There are only so many times you can go to a zoo in a year.”

In 2009, county commissioners voted to give the zoo more financial support rather than closing it. On Wednesday, some commissioners noted the zoo’s previous management promised that would be the last time they would come to the county for support because the zoo would become self-sustaining.

Commissioner Brad Osborne credited Molchany with making continuous improvements at the zoo. He noted Molchany has refrained from promising what the zoo’s financial status will be by the end of 2019, “but I think that’s a reasonable and realistic stance.”

“If I could guarantee I would,” Molchany told commissioners, later adding he does not know if the zoo will ever will be self-sufficient.

Succeed, but without county help

Commissioner Michael Schware said the zoo has turned a corner under Molchany’s “remarkable” management, and hopes it is on its way to becoming self-sufficient.

He said the overwhelming and bi-partisan consensus of county commissioners during the past decade is they want the county to get out of the zoo business, but also want the zoo to succeed.

“I want the zoo for my kids and for other kids,” said Schware. “There is no question that it adds to the quality of life in the county. We want it to be stronger than ever to the benefit of the taxpayers of Lehigh County.”

Yet Schware was the first who suggested tabling the proposed ordinance. He argued if the county gives the zoo $280,000 a year for six years, it is not guiding it toward self-sufficiency. He suggested giving less money for fewer years.

Commissioner Vic Mazziotti agreed, saying if the county does go with a six-year agreement, the annual subsidy should be reduced each year until it reaches zero. He said another option would be renew funding for the zoo every year.

Schware liked that idea, but Dougherty said it should be no fewer than three years.

Ott would like a specific date when the zoo, which he called “a valuable part of the community,” will be able to stand on its own “four hoofs” – supported solely by admissions, gift shops sales and contributions.

But Dougherty doesn’t think the zoo ever will be self-sufficient. He said it is going to need on-going financial support from the county.

Ott said a non-profit such as the zoological society may have trouble getting financial support from other sources as long as people assume “the government is taking care of it.”

Dougherty said people in the Lehigh Valley are “a little bit thrifty” when it comes to charitable giving, many non-profits are competing for money, and major corporations that once supported non-profits are gone.

Beyond tabling

Schware made the motion to table the bill with the understanding that commissioners will work out details of an alternative with the county administration and zoo representatives. Only Dougherty, McCarthy and Osborne voted against tabling.

If the bill had not been tabled, commissioners could have taken a final vote on it at their May 8 meeting.

Mazziotti, who chairs the administrative committee that will review the tabled bill, said a new bill might not be needed “but we need further discussion about it. We may end up in exactly the same place where we are now” but other options need to be considered.

It was unclear when Mazziotti’s administrative committee will review the zoo funding issue or when it might come back before commissioners for action.

Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the commissioners, said they must decide if the county is going to be in the zoo business and, if so, under what kind of agreement. She noted their decision will impact the county’s 2014 budget.

Outside the meeting, Molchany said he hopes a majority of commissioners will come around, commenting: "We just started the dance." He said he doesn’t mind commissioners asking questions, which he called tough but appropriate, commended their diligence and expressed optimism that a partnership will develop as discussions continue.

He told commissioners: “I welcome suggestions to grow money, to grow revenue streams and help us maintain our expenses.”