Will partnering with the private sector fix the NC Zoo’s financial problems?
A bill to create a public-private partnership between the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DENR) and the North Carolina Zoological Society did not garner enough support to pass the legislature during the short session, but we have not heard the last on this issue. Dr. David Jones, Director of the NC Zoo in Asheboro since 1994, told the Asheboro Courier Tribune that the setback was disappointing, but at least the efforts in the short session brought the serious financial needs of the Zoo to the attention of lawmakers. Though NC House Representatives Moffitt, Brawley, Murry and R. Moore are the primary sponsors of House Bill 958, it was Dr. Jones who shouldered the bulk of the effort of trying to persuade the House committees of the partnership’s merits. Zoo officials believe that once the Zoo is freed from State rules about construction oversight, employment, and contracts with outside vendors that profits and donations will increase, enabling the continued expansion and improvement of the Zoo’s facilities and programs.
Such partnerships are hardly unprecedented. About three-quarters of accredited zoos and aquariums in the United States use this model. State legislatures have increasingly looked to public-private partnerships to make improvements to transportation infrastructure when the economic climate has made it difficult for state budgets to keep pace with the need for repairs and new construction. The federal government has even employed public-private partnerships in the management of national forests.
Despite receiving a favorable report from the Finance Committee and an initial placement on the legislative calendar, House Bill 958 was withdrawn from the calendar on June 25 and referred to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operation of the House, where it awaits possible action in the long session starting on January 30.
Currently, the DENR operates the North Carolina Zoological Park. The General Assembly established the North Carolina Zoological Park Council, composed of 15 members appointed by the Governor to advise DENR on Zoo matters. The bill would direct DENR to enter into a management agreement to operate the Zoo in partnership with the North Carolina Zoological Society (the Society), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that has been helping to raise funding and public support for the Zoo since the 1960’s.
If the partnership is formed, the Society’s responsibilities would include, at a minimum, providing park and outreach operation; planning for and implementation of maintenance and expansion; providing construction, furnishings and equipment; maintaining high standards of animal welfare and husbandry; carrying out research and practical conservation programs; establishing and setting admission fees; promoting public appreciation of animals and plants; disseminating information about the Zoo and its programs; developing effective public support; soliciting financial and material support from various private sources within and without the State of North Carolina; maintaining the highest possible standards in the Zoo’s exhibits, landscaping, and overall appearance; and maintaining Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation.
The bill transfers responsibility for Zoo operations from the existing Park Council to the Society for an initial term of 25 years with an option to renew at the end of each term. The State retains ownership of all State land, but transfers all personal property to the Society. As a condition to this agreement, the bill provides that the Society will amend its articles of incorporation so that the Society’s board has no more than 25 members, which must include the Secretary of DENR, the Secretary of the Department of Administration, and two people appointed by the General Assembly. Some Finance Committee members felt that the State would have no real control with only four members of the Society’s board representing State interests, but Dr. Jones emphasized that the Society needs as many skilled fundraisers on its board as it could get in order to meet the Zoo’s financial goals.
The State would take on some significant financial support for the Zoo as well. The bill states that the intent is that the funds for the creation, establishment, construction, operation, and maintenance of Zoo are to be obtained primarily from private sources. But the State would pay a $10 million annual management fee, appropriate $3.2 million to DENR for transition costs, allocate $5 million annually for 6 years to the Society from the Reserve for Repair and Renovation for deferred maintenance on State property, and direct that the assets of the Special Zoo Fund be used to improve State property at the Zoo.
Concerns were raised in the Finance Committee about the lack of a definite financial commitment from the Society in the first version of the bill. NC House Representative Deborah Ross, in particular, questioned the equality of a partnership where the State commits millions of dollars but the Society does not attach a number to its financial commitment. Dr. Jones responded that it is difficult to predict exactly how much money will be raised through the Society’s fundraising efforts, and that donors are more easily attracted to major projects like opening new exhibits rather than the necessary but far less glamorous task of catching up on deferred maintenance. But the latest version of the bill commits the Society to expending a minimum of $4 million annually on Zoo operations, excluding funds it receives from the State and admissions fees.
The bill’s supporters were quick to point out that the State can expect to save money in the long run. The $10 million annual management fee is less than what the Zoo has received each year for the last four fiscal years. If the Zoo is to maintain its high standards under the continued operation of the State, those appropriations are projected to increase even further. Similar budgetary concerns have motivated the privatization of other zoos across the country. The Los Angeles Zoo is currently considering a partnership with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association.
Thousands of students from across the state visit the NC Zoo every year at no charge as part of their education. I remember going there when I was in high school. Thousands more pay for the privilege. Most people can agree that maintaining the Zoo is a worthy goal. Not surprisingly, the discussion boils down to who is going to foot the bill.