After months of debate, the Lehigh Valley Zoo won $185,000 in annual funding for three years from Lehigh County commissioners Wednesday night.
The 5-3 vote in favor of that annual subsidy followed an unsuccessful attempt to delay action on the issue until late January.
The three commissioners who voted no wanted time to develop an alternative plan, which would have given the zoo less money from the county.
After the vote Richard Molchany, president and CEO of the non-profit Lehigh Valley Zoological Society, said the majority of commissioners voted to benefit residents, who consider the zoo a major attribute of living in the county.
“I’m very happy, it’s a good day,” said Molchany.
“The county commissioners supported quality of life by supporting the zoo.”
Several zoo supporters at the lightly-attended meeting applauded the commissioners’ action.
The debate over funding for the zoo has been going on since April.
“Your bison give birth faster than this, don’t they?” County Executive-elect Tom Muller asked Molchany after the vote.
Molchany did not address commissioners before their vote, but later said the average accredited U.S. zoo gets 40 percent of its revenue from public subsidies. “We’re down to eight or nine percent.”
Voting to fund the zoo at $185,000 for three years were Commissioners Thomas Creighton, Percy Dougherty, David Jones, Dan McCarthy and Brad Osborne.
“The subsidy request is reasonable,” said McCarthy. “It is much less than it had been in years past.”
Voting against $185,000 for three years were Commissioners Vic Mazziotti, Lisa Scheller and Michael Schware. They wanted the amount of county funding to the zoo to decrease to $125,000 in 2015 and to
$65,000 in 2016.
“I do support the zoo,” said Scheller, president of the nine commissioners, “but I don‘t support it completely on the taxpayers’ expense. We’re facing a huge budget deficit.
“The zoo is doing well financially. They’re even expanding and adding exhibits. Mr. Molchany has done an excellent job growing the zoo’s revenues.”
McCarthy said the small zoo has become a victim of its own success. He said in the past county commissioners told the zoo’s operators “to raise money, get a healthy balance sheet, get some good reserves and get on your feet. Well, they’ve done that. And now we say ‘because you’ve done all that, we have to rethink a subsidy to you’.”
Absent from the meeting was Commissioner Scott Ott.
Ott’s vote might have changed the outcome significantly, when Schware made a motion to defer any action on the zoo until the commissioners’ second meeting in January.
That motion failed by a 4-4 vote. Ott consistently votes with Schware, Mazziotti and Scheller.
One commissioner gasped in surprise when Dougherty joined the other three in voting to defer.
At least three of the four wanted the time to put together an alternate bill with annually decreasing funding. Mazziotti said the proposal before commissioners could not be modified Wednesday night to incorporate such annual reductions.
Schware said there was no need for immediate action because $185,000 for the zoo already has been approved as part of the 2014 county budget.
“We have the time to make this right,” said Schware. “We need to have the will to do so and to do right by the taxpayers.”
When Schware asked the county’s administration if it would be willing to work on another revision, Muller, who is now the county’s director of administration and becomes executive next month, made it clear he is not. “My administration is done working on the alternatives on this.”
Later Muller said the possibility of reaching agreement on any set of numbers in late January was “somewhere beyond unlikely.”
The executive-elect said the amount of time that he, Molchany, current Executive Matthew Croslis and deceased former county Executive William Hansell “have spent on this issue is astounding, given its low financial impact.”
Muller said more than $110 million of the county's $362 million budget for 2014 comes from taxpayers. He said the amount of money being debated for zoo funding is less than two-tenths of one percent of that $110 million.
He said county government should be focusing on the big issues, “not spending over eight months on a subject that is as small as this one.”
He acknowledged it is not a small issue to the zoological society.
After the vote, Molchany said he does not know if the zoo can become self-sufficient by the end of 2016, should the county commissioners vote to end all support in the future..
Schware argued the county’s subsidy should decrease each year “in light of the zoo’s financial success.”
He said on Oct. 31, at the end of the zoo’s fiscal year, it had a cash balance of about $750,000, “which is far in excess of what they’ve had in prior years” and “far in excess of what is being asked for from the county.”
“At the same time, the county’s financial picture is not looking very good,” continued Schware. “Unless something changes, we’re going to be looking at giving a tax hike to the taxpayers of Lehigh County. We need to consider not only the zoo’s need but, most of all, the taxpayers. The taxpayers of this county cannot afford a tax hike. We need to do everything possible to avoid that.”
After the meeting, Muller said he does not buy into Schware’s “the-sky-is-falling position.”
The three years of county funding for the zoo was a compromise to an initial proposal by Croslis, which would have ensured funding for the next six years: $185,000 a year from 2014 to 2016, then $150,000 from 2017 through 2019.
Dougherty, one of the co-sponsors of that six-year proposal, withdrew his support Wednesday night. Osborne, the other sponsor, recommended withdrawing that bill.
When no other commissioners offered to sponsor it, Scheller announced it was withdrawn.
The approved, three-year bill was sponsored by Dougherty and Creighton.
Dougherty called it a good compromise.
The three-year funding plan does include built-in reductions in the annual $185,000 subsidy, if audits show improvement in the zoo’s cash balance at the end of each year. Those reductions range from $15,000 to $35,000, depending on how much that cash balance increases.
The accredited zoo is in the heart of the 1,100-acre Trexler Nature Preserve, located in North Whitehall Township just west of Schnecksville.
Not in dispute is an additional $92,500 provided each year for the care of the county’s bison, elk and Palomino horses that live in Trexler Nature Preserve, which is owned by the county.