Lehigh County commissioners wrestle with future of zoo, nursing home

Posted: 6:41 AM EST Nov 27, 2013   Updated: 6:42 AM EST Nov 27, 2013
Lehigh Co. commish

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.

Both sides say the small zoo has been very successful under the leadership of Richard Molchany, president and CEO of the non-profit Lehigh Valley Zoological Society.

Commissioners opposing a six-year funding deal are optimistic the zoo will thrive with less county support. Those supporting it believe the zoo needs continued county support to ensure that it will continue to thrive.

“I don’t want to punish you for your success,” Commissioner David Jones told Molchany.

Dougherty noted he’s often said the zoo will never become self-sufficient, adding: “I may have to eat crow or lorikeet or something, because they have been making a lot of progress. In three years, we may get to a point where they may be self-sufficient and we may not have to subsidize them.”

“It’s never going to be self-sufficient if we don’t help it get there,” said Schware.

Croslis said if the three-year funding plan moves forward, the six-year plan he previously recommended will be withdrawn at the Dec. 11 commissioners meeting.

If the six-year funding plan is not withdrawn, both it and the three-year plan will be voted on at that meeting, explained Scheller.

Molchany told commissioners the zoo plans to spend $175,000 on a new reptile exhibit in 2014. He indicated county money will not be used for that new exhibit.

Dougherty said he’s leery about any expansion when the zoo still needs county money because it’s not making a real profit.

Dougherty suggested the zoo could get by with less money by having fewer but better exhibits. Molchany previously has told commissioners the zoo occasionally needs to add new features to keep people coming back.

Evaluating Cedarbrook

The commissioners’ Cedarbrook committee will hold its hearing on Cedarbrook’s financial situation before the regular commissioners meeting on Dec. 18.

Scheller requested that Cedarbrook officials not only define the problem at that hearing, but bring the solution.

Said Creighton: “We don’t care abut the nitty-gritty of how to run the operation. We just want to know what solutions or what choices we have to make it profitable.”

“Or to break even anyway,” added Scheller.

In October, the county had to transfer $3.6 million to Cedarbrook to keep it open through the end of this year.

On Tuesday, officials indicated the nursing home projects a $5.9 million shortfall in revenue in 2014.

It would be very difficult to cut $5.9 million in expenses to eliminate that shortfall, said Cedarbrook administrator Jamie Aurand.

Representatives of LW Consulting, which runs the nursing home, spent much of a Tuesday night Cedarbrook committee meeting reeling off obscure statistics in response to a question previously posed by Ott: Where would patients go if they didn’t have Cedarbrook?

The Cedarbrook officials said they provide a service to 637 residents “who would have to go quite a long distance” to find another nursing home if Cedarbrook did not exist.

They said at least some patients could wind up “in a for-profit facility,” while others would go to other nursing homes owned by counties, such as Gracedale in Northampton County. They also said some could wind up in hospital beds until other places would take them, which would put more pressure on the hospital system.

Ott maintained Cedarbrook is absorbing part of the market demand for a group of people who theoretically could be placed in other nursing homes. “We’re essentially competing with other homes to take those customers.

“If we weren’t here, or if little by little we downsized, eventually it would be worthwhile for those other homes to absorb that customer base.”

Jones said: “The bigger question is ‘what problem are we trying to solve by the questions being asked?’” He said if the issue is “whether there is a justification for Cedarbrook to even be in existence, then I can understand some of the questions, because that is where those questions are intended to lead.” But he said that is not an appropriate conversation “at this point in time.”

Countered Ott: “I will not insult your question if you do not insult my question. Commissioner, we have an operation that just came to us and took another $3.6 million from taxpayers. It’s not a small issue we’re talking about.”

Responded Jones: “I’m more interested in understanding how do we close the gap.”

The commissioners are considering a proposal from Complete HealthCare Resources-Eastern, Inc., of Dresher, Montgomery County, to do an $18,000 “professional financial options analysis” of the county nursing home. The analysis promises to provide a detailed report of future options for Cedarbrook.