A compromise to assure future funding of Lehigh Valley Zoo wasn’t enough of a compromise to satisfy at least four of Lehigh County’s nine commissioners Tuesday night.
On another financial matter, commissioners are scheduling a Dec. 18 public hearing to learn from operators of Cedarbrook, the county’s nursing home, why it went millions of dollars over budget this year and what steps will be taken to prevent it from happening again.
The zoo proposal, presented by Commissioners Tom Creighton and Percy Dougherty, would provide a $185,000-a-year subsidy to the zoo from
2014 through 2016. Both commissioners called it a good compromise.
That compromise would replace an earlier proposal by County Executive Matthew Croslis that would have ensured county funding to the zoo for the next six years: $185,000 a year from 2014 to 2016, then $150,000 from 2017 through 2019.
“Three years is better than six, but it’s still two years too long,”
said Commissioner Michael Schware, who proposed an alternative compromise.
Not in dispute is an additional $92,500 provided each year for the care of the county’s bison, elk and Palomino horses that live in Trexler Nature Preserve, where the zoo is located.
The commissioners already have approved the county’s 2014 budget, which contains $185,000 for the zoo for next year.
But at least four commissioners are reluctant to lock in funding for the zoo for several years, especially because the county is facing a budget deficit of more than $7 million in 2014.
They don’t accept that the zoo is destined to fail if it doesn’t get a
three- or six-year funding deal.
“I have a lot of apprehension as to whether I want to approve anything beyond 2014 based on the financial situation of this county and what the taxpayers may be facing at the end of 2014,” said Lisa Scheller, president of the commissioners.
And Commissioner Scott Ott said he remains reluctant to give the zoo “a long-term contract” when the process of approving its budget allocation year-by-year “will serve it just as well.” Schware said other non-profits get county subsidies on an annual basis.
“We do have an extreme financial crunch in the county,” agreed Dougherty. “But I still feel the zoo is the crown jewel of the county park system and we owe the zoo some financial support for the next couple of years.”
Croslis told commissioners he fully supports funding the zoo for three years: “It gives stability to the zoo. They shouldn’t have to come here year after year.”
The county executive called it “an outside-of-the-box solution” to both support the zoo and reduce the county’s subsidy.
Thomas Muller, the county’s director of administration who will become the new county executive in January, told commissioners he also supports the three-year funding plan for the zoo.
Compromise to the compromise
A compromise to the proposed compromise was offered by Schware. He suggested giving the zoo $60,000 less each year -- $185,000 in 2014, $125,000 in 2015 and $65,000 in 2016.
Ott and Commissioner Vic Mazziotti indicated they support Schware’s alternative proposal.
“I’d like to see this come back from the administration with a different set of numbers,” said Schware.
Scheller recommended that administration do just that, adding: “The board would support that.”
“We’ll have to talk about it,” said Croslis. “We will have a discussion.”
After the meeting, Croslis explained a third version of a proposed ordinance funding the zoo, using the numbers suggested by Schware, would have to be presented for a first reading at the Dec. 11 commissioners meeting and the two earlier versions would be withdrawn.
Croslis stressed the proposed three-year funding plan already includes built-in reductions in the annual $185,000 subsidy, if audits show improvement in the zoo’s cash balance at the end of each year. Those reductions range from $15,000 to $35,000, depending on how much the cash balance increases.
Croslis said the three-year funding plan for the zoo was Creighton’s idea. Creighton did not support the six-year plan, which is likely to be withdrawn or voted down at the Dec. 11 meeting.
Commissioners have been debating future funding for the zoo for months. In late September, they voted 5-4 to delay a final vote on the six-year plan until Dec. 11.