Thursday, January 22, 2009

LC Exec Don Cunningham:Let's Try to Save Lehigh Valley Zoo

At a news conference today, Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham proposes trying to save the nearly bankrupt Lehigh Valley Zoo. Closing it and forcing all the animals to run for office will cost the county about $1.8 million over five years. Keeping the facility open as a children's zoo that focuses on education, will cost no more. Closing the zoo will save no money, but will deprive the community of a treasured asset. So Cunningham proposes keeping the place open as a children's zoo whose focus is educational. It's a persuasive argument, even to fiscal conservatives. Lehigh County's Board of Commissioners will decide what to do on Wednesday, but Cunningham's proposal makes sense to me.

Here is Cunningham's complete statement.

I have held back from offering my views and position on the impending bankruptcy of the Lehigh Valley Zoo until I had a full compliment of the facts and financials before me.

Toward that end, for more than a month, my administrative staff has worked aggressively with the zoo’s administrative staff, it’s board, county commissioners and reviewed the financial records to get a full and clear picture of the past, present and future situation at our zoo.

The impending bankruptcy of the Zoological Society is a complex situation. And, when faced with complicated decisions that involve the expenditure of public funds, one is best to not take a knee-jerk approach or a passionate approach to decision making.

In the end this is a business decision. It should not be based on who loves animals more or less. In matters regarding the zoo and animals, there is a lot of passion and nostalgia. There is a long and deep history regarding this property and some of these animals on county land that dates back to General Harry Trexler.

This county has long supported this zoo, whether it operated under its current name or its previous name (the Trexler Game Preserve) or whether it operated as a county department or as a subsidized tenant on county property. During the last ten years, under both operating models, county taxpayers have spent an average of about $435,000 a year to run the zoo. It was a little more when the county ran it ($587,000) and a little less on average ($438,000) as a subsidized tenant on county property.

The issue of county financial support is not new. Every county budget for the last two decades has seen financial support for the zoo, some more, some less – but on average $520,000 per year. The issue of closing the zoo is not new either. Five years ago that was debated. And, the Board of Commissioners decided then to develop a new, privatized model that got the county directly out of zoo operations by leasing the facility to the Zoological Society. The idea was a sound one. But, the five year plan that was put in place was based more on wishful thinking than a sound business plan.

Therefore, today the Zoological Society will be bankrupt next month and the facility will close, leaving more than 170 animals on county government property in the hands of us in the dead of winter.

What is new is the reality of paying for the cost to close this facility - the cost to care for the animals until a new home can be found, the cost to find that home and get the animals there, as well as the continued cost of maintaining the herds of bison, elk and Palomino horses, which the county owns. We own a total of about 30 animals.

The cost to do that this year alone is a little more than $1 million. Over a five year period, the total cost of this option is $1.8 million since its will cost us at least $200,000 a year for our herd animals and maintenance. Those animals, today, are cared for by the Zoological Society.

Recognizing the financial cost of the Zoological Society’s bankruptcy – not to mention the loss of a treasured facility, referred to by some as the “jewel of the county’s park system” – we challenged the zoo leadership and board to develop a conservative five year business model based on market reality and a better focus, including what would be needed from the county to support that. We challenged them to squeeze out costs and focus on what works.

There are three guideposts I said were crucial in this plan:

1) That we move away from the model of a regional zoo created five year ago that projects the impression of competing with the Philadelphia Zoo.
2) That we develop a realistic budget with conservative attendance and revenue and cost projections.
3) That the request for county investment be a number that will make a realistic budget work.

I will not support a subsidization number made up by politicians that doesn’t work in a business plan. That’s precisely what was developed five years ago and has led to the current situation.

I also will not support spending county tax dollars on a product that is too small and too ineffective to make it worthy of county support. I don’t think we need a petting zoo with barnyard animals on county property.

And, I will not support anything other than the proper care and transition of the animals on our property in the event that we are not granted the ability to continue a zoo operation.

This county leadership took the right approach when making a financial commitment to minor league baseball. We partnered with the Philadelphia Phillies to land an AAA affiliated team in the star studded International League. We did not invest those tax dollars into an unaffiliated team that played a lesser brand of baseball. My position is that if we aren’t willing to do this right than the correct decision is to do nothing at all.

Toward that end, there is a plan in front of us to restructure this facility into a new Lehigh Valley Children’s Zoo that focuses on its core audience, children 3-10 years old and their parents and grandparents. Nearly half of all visitors to the zoo in recent years have come from school bus trips. Much of the zoo’s programming is focused on education, both in educating kids about biology, animals and the natural world and providing teacher re-education credits in how to teach biology and environmental topics. There are existing solid partnership with school districts, environmental groups and other science and education institutions that can be made even stronger.

Today, we have in front of us a five year plan – based on conservative estimates of 1 percent annual growth and annual cost increases actually tied to inflation. There is no dream like vision of huge numbers of new visitors or magical donor dollars falling from the sky, such as the plan five years ago.

The plan would require a five year commitment of $1,825,000 in county money – just about the same number it will cost us during the same period of time to close the facility.

This week the Administration will send to the Commissioners two ordinances. One ordinance will ask for the $525,000 this year to keep the zoo open and a lease extension calling for $325,000 the next four years for a new Lehigh Valley Children’s Zoo. This figure is $200,000 below the average county spending of $525,000 during the last ten years. The other ordinance, which will be necessary if the first is rejected, will call for an appropriation of $1,014,000 this year to close the facility with recognition that future budgets will need a line item of $200,000 to care for the herds and maintain the facility.

My Administration and I will support the ordinance to invest in a new Lehigh Valley Children’s Zoo. This is the clear choice from a fiscal perspective and a social perspective.

When it is cost effective, communities and governments need to invest in the quality of life assets that make a region a special place to live, to work, to raise a family and to visit. We have understood this for a long time in Lehigh County. That’s why we have this facility, the Trexlertown Velodrome, Coca Cola Park and dozens of other quality of life assets that receive our support.

This plan will not generate the need for a tax increase. In fact, the additional $195,000 in new spending that we would be needed from our 2009 budget can be taken from the surplus we generated from beating our budget projections in 2008.

It’s imperative that we make decisions based on good business analysis but that in the process we keep an eye towards maintaining the soul of our county and our community. In this case, we can do both.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am not as smart as a politician. How does it work that it costs as much to keep something open as it does to close it? Will it truly cost 1.8 million to get rid of all those animals?

If these animals are so valuable wouldn't another zoo be interested in acquiring them?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Here's the pertinent part from Cunningham's remarks:

"What is new is the reality of paying for the cost to close this facility - the cost to care for the animals until a new home can be found, the cost to find that home and get the animals there, as well as the continued cost of maintaining the herds of bison, elk and Palomino horses, which the county owns. We own a total of about 30 animals."

Anonymous said...

"star studded International League" ?

I miss Kris Benson already.

Anonymous said...

Marketing the place as a "Children's Zoo" is a losing concept for sure.

Hey mommy, can we go to the lesser zoo today instead of the real zoo?

In many people's minds the LV Zoo is more than half the distance as the Philly zoo. This new name will just tell them to go right to Philly.

Someone doesn't know a thing about marketing.

Anonymous said...

I'll go ahead and ask the harsh question and probably take all kinds of flack - bison and elk are not endangered species, and we have people in the Lehigh Valley that are going hungry. Why not consider processing them and using the meat as food in our shelters?

Please be kind everyone, this is a legitimate question, I don't hate animals or zoos or children.

The Banker

Bernie O'Hare said...

Banker,

Another question you might ask is whether the Trexler Trust might be willing to underwrite that cost.

I am amazed by what I learn when I read our history. I was unaware that, early in our history, bison were actually found in this area.

They were common in Kentucky. Apparently, the hump of the bison was considered a delicacy among native Americans, English, French and settlers. It is apparently much more tasty than the best filet mignon, although I've never even tried a buffalo burger.

Having said that, I would imagine the costs associated with slaughtering these animals would raise eyebrows. Did you know you can shoot a bison point blank in the head and it will not bring it down? So I don't know how you kill them, but you probably need a bazooka or something. I don't think it would help the LV's image to be seen as an area that now slaughters bison and elk.

People would also argue, with justification, that a different diet is being forced on the poor.

Anonymous said...

Bernie, there is a business that processes buffalo meat in Coopersburg - www.backyardbison.com. I've eaten their products many times (they've had a stand at the Emmaus Farmers Market since it started). Buffalo meat is delicious and much more healthy than other meats.

Contract w/ this business to handle the processing and sales. They're the experts and they're right here. They can sell it to the general public or provide to the shelters.

That being said, good points on the Trust stepping up and the publicity this would create. I figured though I wasn't the only person who would have this thought, so let's get it on the table.

The Banker

Anonymous said...

Bernie I'm sorry - the "table" remark was a very bad and unintended pun that I didn't realize until i re-read it - can you delete it for me and replace it with something better?

The Banker

Bernie O'Hare said...

Banker,

Don't worry about it. I think only the bison will be angry and they're boycotting my blog.

An Exorcist said...

Is that a Hallal butcher shop?

Alex J.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Bison kibi. Mmmmm.

An Exorcist said...

Now that's what I'm talking about!

Can I get an Amen!

Anonymous said...

Bison meat ? Who woulda thunk it ?
I have been out to the LV Zoo and it is very far away in a seemingly wooded area. I say that it probably needs to have better fundraisers and independent forms of income if it really WANTS to exist. I would start taking some of the smaller animals out of the zoo and go on a LV tour of schools, organizations, and events. (Like they do on the tonight show with the trainers and animals) This would raise awareness, boost membership, and make the LV Zoo seem more accessible to ALL of the communities in the Lehigh Valley. Most people didn't even know we HAD a zoo, sadly...

Alfonso Todd

Anonymous said...

I'm telling ya guys, bison meat is incredible.

The Banker

Dave said...

Use the casino money..if there is any? Save the animals? Got to admit that this is pretty far down on the priority list of things we really need to address.

Anonymous said...

"Closing the zoo will save no money, but will deprive the community of a treasured asset."

False choice. The concept of "sunk costs" states that if you have the choice of spending the same amount of money to kill a concept versus continuing operation for several years, you will save money in the long run by killing the concept. Think about it. 1.8 million for 2 years to operate the zoo. What happens in year three? Do we keep funding it then? Yes is the likely answer. If we kill it, it costs the same during the two years, but year three is either far cheaper than continued operations at the current level, or non-existent.

Make the decision on social utility. There is no economic argument to be made in terms of cost savings. Politicians are really bad at understanding economics.

Anonymous said...

For Bernie and the Banker. The Bison and Elk are actually mentioned in Gen. Trexler's will. He stipulated that as part of the land grant to the county and as a requirement to access Trexler Trust money for the upkeep of the land, that the County must maintain his herds of Bison and Elk. This was because he wanted everyone in the Valley to have a direct connection to two species that were as Bernie pointed out indigenous to the area. So the County must maintain the herds to be in compliance with the Generals will and the Trust. I am sure a smart lawyer could find a way to get around that but the negative PR that would generate is certainly not worth it.

Anonymous said...

The food bank has plenty of food. The cost of inspecting and processing the meat that is uneeded is not a PETA bad thing, it just doesn't make sense.

Anonymous said...

Bernie -

A previous comment beat me to my point. Even if the costs are the same over the next few years, by year three we will most likely be in the same position we are today unless we close the zoo now. I look at it that we would already be saving the $1.8 million TODAY had we closed the zoo a few years ago.

To me, this is one of those "core functions" of county government issues. I don't think that the county should be in the zoo business. They've tried passing it off to the private sector, but the interest isn't there.

While I personally hate to see it go, it makes no sense for the county to keep funding it. I have kids who I've taken there, and fond memories of visiting the "game preserve" when I was a kid. Still, it's been given enough chances and its time has come.

BTW, the Trexler Trust has been one of the forces wanting the zoo to close. They continue to provide the county with funding for maintaining the herd (among other things). However, they feel the zoo and the exotic animals are in excess of what the General envisioned when he wrote his will. I would have to agree.

Anonymous said...

It is time to close the zoo.

Scott Armstrong

bob said...

There are two problems with the zoo, as I see it.
One is that it will never be able to support costs by itself(now that is brilliant), and nobody can find it.
Sorry, but close it.
Bob
(A second thought to have Cummingham and the Mayor support it with campaign contributions.)

Anonymous said...

Bob is right, it is in a very bad location to begin with.

Combine this with a marketing strategy that tells you NOT to go there makes the decision pretty clear to me.

Close it.

Anonymous said...

I say eat the animals (goats don't taste so baaaad), clear the land and erect a CVS or Rite-Aid or some bank branch that really doesn't want you to actually visit. I think it's called progress.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I'm not doing too well here. And I just got an email from a friend who scoffs at the notion that it's hard to bring down a bison.

"Told you shooting bison in the head at point blank range won't bring it down? Clearly, they dont understand ballistics. I guarantee you, my 45-70 Marlin will drop that oversized hamburger at 50 yards."

Bill Leiner Jr. said...

Twenty to thirty years from now when North Whitehall Twp. looks suburban-like as Whitehall Township is today, there will be plenty of people around to go to the Zoo. They will appreciate one of the remaining green areas in the Twp. This will be an interesting decision as five Commissioner seats are up for election this year. Not that politics would have anything to do with the vote. My hope is we make a clean financial decision, as that is what this is.

Anonymous said...

Bill,

Then the choice is clear, close the zoo.

Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

"I am amazed by what I learn when I read our history. I was unaware that, early in our history, bison were actually found in this area "
My father who was raised in Nazareth told me this. (1923-2003) A farmer was raising buffalo in the Nazareth area now known as East Lawn. In the 1930's or 40's there were many living in the wild and as they started to develope the area they had cowboys come in to round up all the buffalo gone wild so they could build on it. Imagine having a 1500 pound beast grazing in the back yard :).

Anonymous said...

"""I guarantee you, my 45-70 Marlin will drop that oversized hamburger at 50 yards."""" :):) A 45-70 would stop a tractor trailer at 50 yards!! :)

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 12:05, Are you serious?
Never heard that before.

Anonymous said...

Yes I am serious. That entire area was just farm land at the time and some of the farmers bison ended up drifting off and having there own herd.