After months of debate, the Lehigh Valley Zoo won $185,000 in annual funding for three years from Lehigh County commissioners Wednesday night.
The 5-3 vote in favor of that annual subsidy followed an unsuccessful attempt to delay action on the issue until late January.
The three commissioners who voted no wanted time to develop an alternative plan, which would have given the zoo less money from the county.
After the vote Richard Molchany, president and CEO of the non-profit Lehigh Valley Zoological Society, said the majority of commissioners voted to benefit residents, who consider the zoo a major attribute of living in the county.
“I’m very happy, it’s a good day,” said Molchany.
“The county commissioners supported quality of life by supporting the zoo.”
Several zoo supporters at the lightly-attended meeting applauded the commissioners’ action.
The debate over funding for the zoo has been going on since April.
“Your bison give birth faster than this, don’t they?” County Executive-elect Tom Muller asked Molchany after the vote.
Molchany did not address commissioners before their vote, but later said the average accredited U.S. zoo gets 40 percent of its revenue from public subsidies. “We’re down to eight or nine percent.”
Voting to fund the zoo at $185,000 for three years were Commissioners Thomas Creighton, Percy Dougherty, David Jones, Dan McCarthy and Brad Osborne.
“The subsidy request is reasonable,” said McCarthy. “It is much less than it had been in years past.”
Voting against $185,000 for three years were Commissioners Vic Mazziotti, Lisa Scheller and Michael Schware. They wanted the amount of county funding to the zoo to decrease to $125,000 in 2015 and to
$65,000 in 2016.
“I do support the zoo,” said Scheller, president of the nine commissioners, “but I don‘t support it completely on the taxpayers’ expense. We’re facing a huge budget deficit.
“The zoo is doing well financially. They’re even expanding and adding exhibits. Mr. Molchany has done an excellent job growing the zoo’s revenues.”
McCarthy said the small zoo has become a victim of its own success. He said in the past county commissioners told the zoo’s operators “to raise money, get a healthy balance sheet, get some good reserves and get on your feet. Well, they’ve done that. And now we say ‘because you’ve done all that, we have to rethink a subsidy to you’.”
Absent from the meeting was Commissioner Scott Ott.
Ott’s vote might have changed the outcome significantly, when Schware made a motion to defer any action on the zoo until the commissioners’ second meeting in January.
That motion failed by a 4-4 vote. Ott consistently votes with Schware, Mazziotti and Scheller.
One commissioner gasped in surprise when Dougherty joined the other three in voting to defer.
At least three of the four wanted the time to put together an alternate bill with annually decreasing funding. Mazziotti said the proposal before commissioners could not be modified Wednesday night to incorporate such annual reductions.
Schware said there was no need for immediate action because $185,000 for the zoo already has been approved as part of the 2014 county budget.
“We have the time to make this right,” said Schware. “We need to have the will to do so and to do right by the taxpayers.”
When Schware asked the county’s administration if it would be willing to work on another revision, Muller, who is now the county’s director of administration and becomes executive next month, made it clear he is not. “My administration is done working on the alternatives on this.”
Later Muller said the possibility of reaching agreement on any set of numbers in late January was “somewhere beyond unlikely.”