Sedgwick County is offering a new way to fund the Sedgwick County Zoo as part of a solution to an impasse in negotiations with the Zoological Society.
The county would drop its push to expand its voting power on the nonprofit zoo society board and to set guidelines for the zoo director’s public statements about the county or zoo board.
It proposes the zoo be funded by a property tax mill levy instead of an annual budget allocation from the county.
It allows the Society to have more autonomy, accountability, authority, control and responsibility, eliminates the society’s need to negotiate annual funding amounts and provides the zoo with funding growth at the same rate as the tax base growth.
Letter from Sedgwick County Manager Michael Scholes
“It allows the Society to have more autonomy, accountability, authority, control and responsibility, eliminates the society’s need to negotiate annual funding amounts and provides the zoo with funding growth at the same rate as the tax base growth,” according to an Aug. 5 letter from County Manager Michael Scholes to Zoological Society president Mark DeVries obtained by The Eagle.
A mill is $1 tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value. The county now collects property tax revenue that equals a rate of about 29.359 mills.
1.391 Proposed mill levy to fund the Sedgwick County Zoo
The county proposes that 1.391 mills of property tax revenue go to the zoo annually. The zoo had such a mill levy in 1996 and 1997, according to county documents. That amount was reduced in 1998 to help fund expansion of the jail. Eventually, the method of funding shifted.
In 2000, a 1.391 mill levy on the county’s assessed property value would have been about $3.5 million, according to Scholes’ letter. Now, it would be about $6 million. That’s $223,000 more than the zoo got in the 2017 budget approved last week.
DeVries said he is still evaluating the county’s proposal. Scholes’ letter had not been circulated to all zoo board members as of late Monday afternoon.
DeVries said the zoo board would focus on making sure it would be able to take care of the zoo’s needs for staffing and maintenance work such as heating, ventilation or painting.
“We are in the process of evaluating the proposal by looking at our own requirements,” he said.
The money would pay first for zoo staff. The zoo board would have discretion about how to spend any remaining money. Zoo requests for more funding would need the support of at least four out of five Sedgwick County commissioners.
The county would no longer pay for capital improvement projects, such as the elephant barn it funded in 2015.
Commission Chairman Jim Howell first publicized the push for the new funding plan in a letter to the editor in The Eagle last week.
He said in an interview that his idea originated when county officials visited Tulsa in May. He said he was surprised to find that Tulsa County funds its health department by a set mill levy instead of having yearly debates over funding public health, like those seen in Sedgwick County.
The zoo wouldn’t be the only entity funded by a mill levy in Sedgwick County. Wichita State University, for instance, receives funding from the county based on a set 1.5 mill levy. Howell said that makes the county’s support for WSU almost “formulaic.”
“It just happens,” Howell said. “It was glaringly obvious that they have avoided a tremendous amount of political debate by their funding mechanism.”
Howell said recent fights over zoo funding have damaged the county’s relationship with the Sedgwick County Zoo.
There has been a tremendous amount of political posturing by the zoo and the county that, frankly, has been not good for our partnership.
Jim Howell, Sedgwick County Commission chairman
“There has been a tremendous amount of political posturing by the zoo and the county that, frankly, has been not good for our partnership,” he said.
‘Goals become intertwined’
Howell said there were some “natural incentives” for the new funding plan.
“The zoo is going to have to be much more careful about how it spends its money,” Howell said.
He noted that the state’s property tax lid, set to take effect next year as local governments plan their 2018 budgets, could mean the zoo would have the option to ask voters to approve county spending above the lid.
“They can’t just come to the county and demand more,” he said.
Howell said it also means the relationship between the county and the zoo will become more “apolitical,” because their goals will align.
“They get more money when the economy thrives,” he said. “Our missions and our goals become intertwined.”
Howell said he would have no interest in boosting the county’s voting power on the zoo board or regulating the zoo director’s public statements about the county. “If we move this to a mill levy funding mechanism, my desire to manage those decisions are gone,” he said.
If we move this to a mill levy funding mechanism, my desire to manage those decisions are gone.
Jim Howell, Sedgwick County Commission chairman
Howell said the zoo would not “get anything out of being negative to the commission.”
“Coming back to the county and demanding more money or getting involved in someone’s campaign. … It’s not effective any longer,” Howell said.
Zoo board reaction
The county’s current $5.6 million contribution to the zoo represents about 40 percent of its operating budget. That money goes to pay for zoo staff members.
The remaining $8.5 million comes from donations, memberships, fundraisers and ticket sales.
DeVries said he’s consulting trustees on the board and county officials who were around when the zoo was funded by a mill levy in the late 1990s.
“We are getting their input for how that mill levy process worked,” he said.
DeVries emphasized the zoo board and county are negotiating two separate agreements: a funding agreement and an operating agreement that governs the public-private partnership that runs the zoo day-to-day.
But he said it was a positive development that the county was open to dropping the two disputed changes to the operating agreement.
It allows us to move forward in a positive fashion with the county.
Zoological Society president Mark DeVries
“It allows us to move forward in a positive fashion with the county,” he said.