Is partnership between zoo, county at risk?

Sedgwick County support has enabled the zoo to keep growing and improving its offerings.
Sedgwick County support has enabled the zoo to keep growing and improving its offerings.

The Sedgwick County Zoo is much too important to the community for its county operating agreement to be in doubt at all, let alone for months on end. So it was uncomfortable to see the County Commission vote last week to extend the uncertainty until Nov. 18.

Talks began in December between the county government and the nonprofit Sedgwick County Zoological Society about the operating agreement, which covers the zoo’s director and other employees, property, admission prices, liability and capital improvements. It was last altered in 2005.

It’s a further concern that the county and society have had no funding agreement since the commission terminated a five-year deal last year that had called for stepping up support to as much as $6.9 million by 2018. Instead, the zoo received flat funding of $5.6 million in the 2016 county budget.

Is this outstanding partnership going wobbly? If so, why? And why now, as the zoo prepares to unveil its Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit on Friday?

Any hard feelings among the current commission majority about the previous commission’s 2014 decision to spend $5.3 million on the new elephant barn do not justify harming a public-private collaboration that works for everybody, including taxpayers and their families and businesses.

The county’s 45-year role in the stewardship of the zoo has been crucial to attracting a remarkable level of private investment in the facility. That support has enabled it to keep growing and improving its offerings, and become an award winner as well as a crowd-pleaser. Besides being the No. 1 outdoor tourist attraction in Kansas, it’s a leader in conservation and exhibit design among zoos nationally, with 35 other zoo directors planning to visit June 9 to see the new elephants and habitat.

Commission Chairman Jim Howell suggested last week that the holdup on the operating agreement was society leaders’ doing, that “the ball right now is in their court” and they could resolve the situation at anytime – presumably if they accept the county’s latest proposal as is, when in fact the society board would prefer no changes.

But commissioners and County Manager Michael Scholes have a responsibility to help resolve any differences and, above all, avoid the worst-case scenario – the cancellation of the operating agreement with the society and the county’s assumption of control of the zoo on Jan. 1.

If not, they will find out the hard way how much the community prizes the zoo, and how that esteem is accompanied by an expectation that the county’s support will be consistent and strong.