County commissioners unanimously approved a new funding agreement for the Sedgwick County Zoo on Wednesday.
The pact ends many months of negotiations between the county government and the nonprofit Zoological Society over the zoo’s funding and operating agreements.
“It will help cement the partnership and will help us move forward,” said zoo board president Mark DeVries.
Tim Kaufman, assistant county manager for public services, called the agreement “a byproduct of a significant amount of work” between county staff and zoo board members.
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The last funding agreement was reached in 2013 and allowed for multiple yearly increases. But the County Commission majority in 2015 expressed interest in reviewing the county’s funding and operating agreements for the zoo.
Kaufman noted the agreement is similar to past agreements in that it pays for staff and some improvements to aging equipment and buildings at the zoo.
The county would continue to pay for its employees assigned at the zoo, the equivalent of 109.5 full-time employees.
Under the agreement, the county would split infrastructure improvement costs 50-50 each year with the zoo board.
Those needs are outlined in a capital improvement program for projects that range from fixing the viewing panel for the Chinese alligator exhibit and water heaters for hippos to replacing the lighting system over the Koch Orangutan and Chimpanzee Habitat.
About $800,000 in projects are planned at the zoo for 2018.
“The infrastructure needs will be met for the future,” DeVries said.
The agreement runs from the start of 2018 to the end of 2022.
“I’m very happy that we’ve partnered with the zoo and that we can look forward to five years of partnership,” Commissioner David Dennis said.
Last year, some commissioners pushed for changes in the zoo’s operating agreement that were deeply unpopular with the zoo board, such as boosting the county’s voting power on the board and setting guidelines for the zoo director’s public statements to avoid negative publicity.
Those changes were largely abandoned after Dennis defeated former Commissioner Karl Peterjohn, who backed the changes.
Commissioner Jim Howell offered an alternate zoo funding plan last year shortly after Peterjohn lost. Howell said he was glad to move forward since most of the county’s ideas “were rejected by the zoo board.”
“Our partnership is as strong now as it ever has been,” Howell said. “We’ll continue to fund the zoo, and they’re going to continue to thrive.”
Kaufman is the acting zoo director, although deputy zoo director Ryan Gulker oversees the zoo’s day-to-day operations. The county and zoo are considering candidates to replace long-time director Mark Reed, who retired in December.