The Sedgwick County Zoo is putting on a full-court press to get more money from the county, saying it can’t keep the state’s No. 1 family tourist attraction open without help.
“Right now we are on a nonsustainable track for the zoo long term,” zoo Director Mark Reed told The Eagle last week. “We are greatly concerned.”
Reed and zoo supporters have been meeting with county commissioners to stress that the zoo can’t handle any more funding cuts.
The message is getting through, but commissioners won’t vote on a budget for 2014 until August.
“We have to protect our investment of what we already have and maintain the viability of the zoo long term. I think it’s an incredible community asset, not just for Sedgwick County and Wichita but for the whole south-central Kansas region,” said Commissioner Dave Unruh, who also serves on the board of trustees of the Sedgwick County Zoological Society.
The zoo, which opened in 1971, operates as a private-public partnership. The county pays most employees’ salaries. The zoological society pays the tab for food, supplies, utilities and other expenses.
The partnership used to be 50-50, Reed said. This year’s operating budget for the zoo is about $11.36 million, of which just less than $5 million comes from the county.
The society is paying 56 percent of the zoo’s operating budget this year from admissions, memberships, sales of food and gift shop items, donations, grants and other sources of revenue, and the county is paying 44 percent.
Last year, the society paid 59 percent and the county paid 41 percent.
The county reduced the zoo’s budget by 6.6 percent in 2012 and 5 percent this year for a cumulative total of about $880,500, Reed said.
Zoo can’t grow
Reed said the zoo can’t add exhibits or grow in its current financial shape.
“You can’t do a capital campaign when you’ve laid people off,” Reed said, explaining that the zoo, much like Wichita schools not being able to afford teachers for new buildings, wouldn’t be able to staff new exhibits.
The zoo was about a month away from announcing a new elephant exhibit in 2011 when it was forced to eliminate six positions, Reed said.
A new elephant exhibit is the zoo’s next project. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is requiring that all zoos it accredits have space for at least three elephants by September 2016. The Sedgwick County Zoo has two female elephants, Stephanie and Cinda.
The zoo is having a hard time maintaining the exhibits it already has, Reed said. Building new ones is impossible with the current budget, he said.
The society is spending $1.1 million on infrastructure and repairs this year, Reed said. The Koch Orangutan and Chimpanzee Habitat needs $662,000 for work on a new roof, air conditioning and entry.
Meanwhile, the county is working to cut a projected $2.7 million deficit next year, mostly due to shrinking revenue from property taxes.
County funding priorities
The zoo is not the only attraction – or department – asking the county for more money. The county has cut funding to Exploration Place in recent years as well as to the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum and the Kansas African-American Museum. The Sedgwick County Extension Center has pressured commissioners for more money, too.
“These decisions are always a difficult matter of prioritization,” Unruh said. “I would hate to try to put one of our cultural elements or one of the services we provide in competition with another, but that’s kind of what prioritization is. I think the zoo for our community is a high priority.”
Unruh said the “zoo is kind of at a tipping point.”
Closing exhibits would be devastating for the zoo, Reed said.
For one, it’s an arduous process. You can’t just close down an exhibit in a day, Reed said. The zoo would have to find another facility to which to send animals. That could take two years, Reed said.
Second, and most important, closing exhibits would damage the zoo’s reputation, Reed said.
“People would say, ‘It’s not what it used to be,’ ” Reed said.
If the zoo were forced to close exhibits, he said, “it’s over in two to five years,” meaning the zoo would close its doors.
“If you get to the point where you have to shut something down, it spirals. It’s a vortex that goes real quickly.”
Reed said he has faith the county will come through for the zoo.
“I honestly believe all of them like the zoo,” he said of commissioners. “If there’s a great enough will, they’ll find (the money), hopefully.”
Commissioner Richard Ranzau said that “of all the community activities we’re involved in, I think the zoo is the top priority.”
However, he added that everyone is asking for more money.
He recalled being told that “the (Kansas) Pavilions were cut to the bone and couldn’t be run any more efficiently, and of course, that wasn’t true,” alluding to Wichita businessman Johnny Stevens being in the black at the former Kansas Coliseum complex. The county subsidized the Pavilions for years.
“It’s hard for an elected official at any level to know who is cut to the bone and who’s really not,” Ranzau said.
County Manager William Buchanan will unveil his recommended budget for next year on July 10. Commissioners will vote on a budget for 2014 on Aug. 7.
“The zoo has presented some facts and figures that indicate that they’re at a financial point that if the county does not increase revenues, it’s going to be in a very difficult place that cannot maintain the operations,” he said.
He said raising admission prices, which the zoo already has done, “is not an option at this point in this economy. We’re at a price point where people are walking away.”
In 2011, admission was $12 for adults and $7.50 for children ages 3 to 11 and seniors 62 or older. Today, adults pay $13.95, children 3 to 11 pay $8.95, and seniors pay $11.95. Children 2 or younger are free.
The zoo, Buchanan said, has made a compelling case for more money.
“I’ve heard their request. I understand it intellectually,” Buchanan said. “We have to compare it to what other requests we have. Is the zoo funding more important than a mental health pod (at the jail)? Is it more important than continuing mental health services or extension?”