A proposal by some county commissioners to end a five-year funding agreement with the Sedgwick County Zoo is damaging the relationship between the two groups, zoo supporters say.
The impact of ending the current agreement and replacing it with a year-to-year agreement could have “devastating consequences” on the zoo’s ability to raise funds, particularly during construction of its new elephant exhibit, said zoo director Mark Reed.
And if budget cuts are imminent, the zoo may have to consider increasing admission or membership fees or closing its farm and petting zoo area, he said.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell said reconsidering the zoo’s funding agreement is spurred by a deficit in the county’s coffers. A different set of commissioners agreed to the five-year deal in 2013.
“I think when (the previous commission) made this spending agreement they were hopeful that it would be great, but we’re upside down in our budget,” Howell said. “We have to have the ability to review our priorities and our spending and get that back right side up.
“The bottom line is one governing body cannot obligate with a promise another governing body. … And so they made an agreement in 2013. I wasn’t here then. I’m concerned we’ve got some significant core functions that need to be prioritized.”
In addition to the zoo, the county is discussing ending long-term funding agreements with Exploration Place and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Corp. A termination clause in the agreements says they can be ended by either party by June 1 of each year, to take effect the next January.
So far, the county has not taken any official action. But zoo officials said they have been notified by the county that the agreement could end or be amended at a meeting later this month.
The current funding agreement includes a gradual increase in the next several years, from about $5.6 million in 2015 to about $6.9 million in 2018.
The county provides about 42 percent of the zoo’s budget and covers operating costs. The rest of the budget comes from donations, memberships and ticket sales.
The zoo, which is the top tourist attraction in the state with more than 550,000 visitors each year, has a $43 million economic impact on Sedgwick County, zoo officials say. About half the visitors come from outside Sedgwick County.
The zoo’s board of trustees voted earlier this week to renegotiate next year’s funding under the five-year agreement “with the understanding that no termination of the 5-year funding agreement is received,” according to meeting documents.
Reed said the zoo has agreed to cuts in the past and is willing to negotiate within the five-year agreement.
“I’m willing to look at anything on a yearly basis. But terminating this agreement is going to rupture a relationship and a partnership and it’s going to cause irreparable damage that’s going to take years to build that trust again,” Reed said.
“There is not much that we can cut and still maintain professional standards and provide quality animal care and welfare here and provide the services to the public. So that leaves me with the options to increase revenues – increase admission cost and membership cost – and/or I close exhibits.
“The only exhibit that we can quickly close down and get rid of the animals is in the farm system, which is the … favorite place for people with young kids where kids can feed the animals. It’s the birthplace of the zoo.”
Zoo trustees emphasized that they want to continue the relationship they’ve had with the county for more than 40 years. But this move could hurt that relationship.
“We’ve had a tremendously positive relationship with the county for decades and when the county was short on funds, they came to us and we worked with them to make it work,” said Scott Redler, zoo trustee and co-founder and chief operating officer of Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers. “In a true partnership you work together to come up with a solution.
“We’re jumping off an airplane with a parachute, and halfway down they say, ‘You don’t get the parachute anymore.’ It’s not the right way to do things.”
Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan said the county is in a good financial position.
“The financial plan that we present every year in February, for the last 10 or 15 years, has always shown a deficit, always, because we estimate very conservatively and we try to figure out ways that deficit can be handled in a positive way. So this is not a big deal,” Buchanan said.
“The last projection was $7.9 million (deficit). In a $425 million budget, that’s manageable and we will figure out a way to do it. There is no financial crisis.”
Commissioner Dave Unruh said it’s premature to say there’s a budget issue.
“I think we are not at this time facing any significant budget crisis, and we really won’t have a full handle on that until we get the manager’s recommended budget.”
At that time, he said, the commissioners should go into that process to cut recommended spending.
“Our contracts with these different agencies in our community are a good way to provide them with the ability to plan and security with what funding will be in the coming years,” he said. “If we’re going to be involved and be good partners, having longer-term contracts is much more equitable.”
Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said it’s reasonable to look at the spending figures now, even though there are questions about how revenue pieces will fit into the budget.
“We want to be in position to prioritize all county spending and not be locked into certain spending increases,” he said. “I don’t want to be in a position where we’ve got some entities locked in by contract that are certainly significant here in the community but I don’t think as vital as some of the public safety functions.”
The first budget for 2016 will be presented in July, Peterjohn said.
“We’re spending a record amount of money on the zoo this year, and that’s one of the reasons our reserves were reduced last year and it’s one of the reasons we’ve got some budget challenges for us going forward,” he said.
Howell said terminating the funding agreement does not necessarily mean that zoo funding will decrease. In order for the county to change any numbers in the current agreement, the entire agreement must be canceled, he said.
“We’re not singling out the zoo,” Howell said. “Everything in the county budget has to be reviewed. Everything in the county budget is subject to change. We might cancel entire programs going forward. There’s all kinds of things that could happen.”
Zoo trustees say they’ve heard from significant donors to the elephant exhibit that if funding was decreased, their donations would be withheld, said Steve Houlik , zoo trustee and partner at Allen, Gibbs & Houlik.
“How can we go to donors and ask them to contribute money to a new exhibit when we’re not sure the county will continue to fund the new keepers?” Houlik said.
Two other organizations, Exploration Place and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Corp. – now the Greater Wichita Partnership – have also been told by commissioners and county staff to expect letters canceling their agreements. The issue is scheduled to go before the commission May 13.
The zoo is 1.33 percent of the total county budget, Exploration Place is 0.53 percent, and GWEDC is 0.07 percent, according to Buchanan.
Jan Luth, president of Exploration Place, said it’s difficult to plan long term for exhibits when you have a year-to-year budget agreement with the county, because some exhibits require booking years in advance.
About half of the cost of Exploration Place’s operational funding comes from the county, said Gregory Sevier, past chairman and managing partner at Peterson Peterson and Goss. This year, it received about $2.2 million from the county. He emphasized that quality of life in a community is determined by places like Exploration Place.
The county has helped fund GWEDC since 2004. Its current agreement is $300,000 annually for the next four years.
“Our hope is that the Commissioners recognize that many in the private sector are spending their resources, including hundreds of volunteer hours, to enhance the way GWEDC is doing business using the new Greater Wichita Partnership and through BREG (Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth),” said Charlie Chandler in a statement. Chandler is chairman, president and CEO of Intrust Bank and co-chair of the new Greater Wichita Partnership, which is the umbrella organization for GWEDC.
“I think these are compelling reasons for them to stay the course as a partner in job creation for Sedgwick County. We believe the new structure and additional resources we are assembling will deliver economic development processes that will be even more effective in helping businesses grow.”
The zoo’s $10.6 million Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit – its largest undertaking ever – is well into construction and is expected to open Memorial Day 2016. Half of that exhibit was funded last year by the County Commission outside of the zoo’s regular funding. The project still needs to raise a few hundred thousand dollars, zoo officials say.
The exhibit originally was estimated at $16 million. Reed said the zoo had to get creative to reduce the amount while still getting “the most bang for our buck.”
The project was spurred by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which said zoos it accredits that feature elephants must have space to hold at least three females, two males or three elephants of mixed gender by September 2016. The zoo’s new exhibit includes an 18,000-square-foot barn, which was intended for the zoo’s two elephants and as many as seven more.
In August, the zoo’s lone elephant, Stephanie, will be the first arrival in the new exhibit. Her longtime companion, Cinda, died last year.
In September or October, more elephants will join Stephanie. Reed said the zoo plans to have five more elephants, a mix of males and females, so that they can breed. The zoo does not pay for animals but will likely donate toward conservation projects as part of trades with other zoos.
“We look at the animals at the zoo as spokescritters for their wild brethren,” he said.
Details and final arrangements for the animals are still being made, Reed said. He expects the elephants will increase zoo attendance to more than 700,000 people annually, and that will likely go up once the elephants have babies.
County funding levels over time
Source: Exploration Place, Sedgwick County Zoo