After more than an hour of debate Wednesday night, Lehigh County commissioners voted to delay any decision resolving future funding of Lehigh Valley Zoo until December.
The zoo’s operators, as well as Lehigh County Executive Matthew Croslis, want commissioners to fund it for six years.
But several of the nine commissioners – perhaps a majority of them – only want to fund it one year at a time.
“We need your help,” Rick Molchany, the zoo’s president and CEO, told commissioners. “I’d love it to be 9-0 that you vote to support us for the next six years.”
But commissioners voted 5-4 to defer any action on the six-year funding proposal until Dec. 11.
“Shame,” said zoo supporters in the audience after the vote. “Unbelievable.”
Voting for the delay were Lisa Scheller, Vic Mazziotti, Scott Ott, Michael Schware and Thomas Creighton.
Voting against it were Dan McCarthy, Brad Osborne, Percy Dougherty and David Jones.
Schware made the successful motion to defer a vote on the proposal until December.
“To come to the right decision, we need more information,” he said. “I would like all the facts. That means having the 2013 audited financial statement.”
But before the vote Molchany told commissioners the results of that audit won’t be available until January.
After the meeting, Schware said Molchany will be able to provide commissioners with draft financial information from that audit by December.
No one mentioned it during the meeting, but the delay means commissioners won’t decide future funding for the zoo until after the November municipal election.
Creighton, Dougherty and Schware all face opponents in their bids to be re-elected county commissioner. And Ott is running against Tom Muller, the county’s director of administration, for county executive.
If commissioners approve the six-year funding deal for Lehigh Valley Zoo in December, the county will give the zoo $277,500 a year from 2014 through 2016, then $242,500 from 2017 through 2019.
Those numbers include $92,500 a year for the care of the county’s bison, elk and Palomino horses that roam the hilly terrain of Trexler Nature Preserve, where the zoo is located.
Not including that $92,500, the zoo is asking the county for $185,000 a year from 2014 to 2016, then $150,000 from 2017 through 2019.
Molchany told commissioners if the zoo continues to be financially successful, it may request thousands of dollars less from the county during those six years. He confirmed the amount of money needed could be as low as $115,000 a year.
“This gives the zoo stability so they can go out and raise money,” said Dougherty.
Dougherty said as recently as 2009, the zoo was getting $525,000 a year from the county, and before that the county was contributing more than $1 million a year to the zoo.
“Very few zoos in this country can pay for themselves,” said Dougherty. “Many of them are a big loss for the municipality or county where they are located.”
“Nationally, zoos depend on governmental funds,” confirmed Molchany. “Very few do not.”
Even commissioners who oppose funding the zoo for six years repeatedly stressed they are not opposed to giving it $277,500 in 2014.
County executive proposed six-year deal
Croslis told commissioners that Molchany initially only asked him for a three-year agreement, but he was the one who suggested a six-year agreement.