The Privatization Battle: Is the Milwaukee County Zoo Next?
A study is under way to explore the zoo’s long-term stability
That’s the concern of those who are asking pointed
questions about a report being drafted by a consultant who specializes in
transitioning public zoos to private, nonprofit entities.
In the 2010 budget, the county board approved
spending $20,000 for a study of the zoo’s operations, which was to include a
handful of funding and governance options for the long-term future.
But concerns are growing at the zoo and on the County Board
that Philadelphia-based consultant Rick Biddle’s study focuses solely on
privatizing the zoo.
Milwaukee County Supervisor Lynne De Bruin, whose
district includes the Milwaukee County Zoo, wrote a stinging letter to Biddle
on April 8, reminding the consultant that his assignment includes more than
just finding a path to privatize the zoo.
“[S]taff and I are still concerned because an alternative
county model has not been discussed with the Steering Committee [charged with
overseeing the study],” De Bruin wrote to Biddle. “Current county operations
have been discussed, but this is not the same as a new county operations model
being an alternative option to privatizing.”
De Bruin and other zoo watchers are worried that if
the zoo were to be turned over to a private entity, Milwaukee County
taxpayers would be on the hook for substantial zoo expenses while losing
control of the zoo’s operations and oversight.
“The board was very clear that we didn’t just want a
plan for privatizing the zoo,” De Bruin told the Shepherd. “We wanted to know what improvements the zoo could make
while being operated by the county.”
The board removed $40,000 earmarked in Milwaukee
County Executive Scott Walker’s proposed budget for legal expenses leading to
privatizing the zoo by Oct. 1, 2011.
Zoo Director Chuck Wikenhauser told the Shepherd that a report is likely to be
delivered by June, and that a handful of options—not just privatization—will be
included in Biddle’s report.
“The study is to look at the zoo and its long-term
future,” Wikenhauser said.
Once the report is presented to the County Board’s
Finance and Audit Committee and the Parks, Energy and Environment Committee,
board staff will conduct an independent review of the proposal before the board
would make any decision about the zoo’s fate.
County Budget Crisis Hits the Zoo
The Milwaukee County Zoo, one of the region’s most
popular attractions, serves an estimated 1.3 million people a year and is home
to more than 300 animal species.
But the county’s ongoing budget crisis is having a
tangible impact on the Milwaukee County-owned and -operated zoo. Back in 2008,
$6.4 million in county tax levy went to zoo operations; in 2010, tax support
has dwindled to $3.8 million.
That reduction in support leaves the zoo in a bind.
For example, even though the zoo is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week operation that
employs highly specialized zookeepers, a hefty portion of its employees is
subject to the county’s 22 furlough days this year. That makes adequate
staffing a challenge.
To complement the county’s tax support, the
nonprofit Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM) underwrites specialized
programming—for example, the celebrated bonobo conservation program in the
Democratic Republic of Congo—and has raised more than $15 million since 2001 in
its 21st-century capital campaign for buildings and resources on the zoo
Although the Milwaukee County Zoo is a much-loved
cultural asset, the county’s budget troubles in recent years have forced zoo
insiders to consider other funding and governance options.
Director Wikenhauser has studied privatizing the zoo
on and off over the years and he definitely leans toward privatization, but the
idea never really got off the ground until last fall, when the county board
approved $20,000 for “a plan for the possible development of a public/private
partnership for the management and operation of the zoo.”
Wikenhauser says that privatizing the zoo—while
continuing its county taxpayer support—is one way to ensure solid funding in
the years ahead.
“We can’t just continue to raise admission fees
every year to keep up with expenses because pretty soon people are going to say
that they’re not going to pay that,” Wikenhauser said. “We have to come to
terms with what the new revenue source is going to be.”
The Zoo’s Financial Options
Director Wikenhauser was asked to form a Zoo
Steering Committee and find a consultant to study the issue. Biddle—who has
guided the privatization process of zoos in Kansas City;
Seattle; Fresno, Calif.; Detroit; and Houston—was hired for the
During an interview on Monday, Wikenhauser said that
Biddle is looking at a range of options for the zoo, including changing its
governance and placing it in the hands of a nonprofit entity.
However, De Bruin’s letter states that as of early
April, “an alternative county model has not been discussed with the Steering
“A key piece—how do you improve the county-operated
model—had been lost,” De Bruin said.
But is an alternative, county-operated model even
Wikenhauser seemed skeptical of a county-run zoo
that doesn’t rely on the property tax levy, since a sales tax increase that
would support the zoo and other county assets isn’t likely to be approved by
the state Legislature, and raising admission fees or downsizing the exhibits
wouldn’t be popular or satisfying fixes.
That said, transitioning the zoo to a privately run,
nonprofit entity doesn’t seem to be a magic bullet, either.
De Bruin’s letter states that one privatization
model being studied by Biddle doesn’t have a lot of upside for the county.
According to this option, the county would still
provide $6.5 million annually for operations; absorb $1.4 million in annual
county costs; pay roughly $1 million to $1.5 million in debt obligations
annually; and maintain responsibility for all employee legacy costs.
In addition, the nonprofit entity would have to
raise $1 million more than the ZSM currently does.
“Under this model, the county gives up operational
control but keeps its current obligations plus the most expensive components of
future employee cost obligations,” De Bruin wrote.
Her letter concluded: “If the county is going to be
asked to continue this level of financial commitment, and potentially more if
problems occur, my expectation is that the County Board
would want to continue public operations.”
Wikenhauser, however, said that control of the zoo
would be negotiated further down the road and that asking county taxpayers to
continue funding the zoo is to be expected.
“In most of the zoos that have gone through this
process, this change, there’s still a subsidy from the local government
agency,” Wikenhauser said.
Red Flags for Front-Line Employees
Sources report that Biddle has interviewed zoo
managers and ZSM staffers. But De Bruin, in her April 8 letter, admonishes
Biddle for not meeting with front-line zoo employees.
“The idea that front-line employees might not be
interviewed is so different from how the county has worked in past planning
situations that my County
Board colleagues would be
shocked to learn this has not occurred,” De Bruin wrote. “To prevent this from
becoming controversial, I’m asking for interviews of some front-line staff
before any ‘draft’ final report is presented to the Steering Committee”
[emphasis in the original].
Biddle was scheduled this week to interview three
front-line, union-represented zoo employees selected by managers, and a draft
report will be submitted later.
An internal zoo e-mail released to the Shepherd set out the parameters of the
discussion. “At the meeting, Rick will talk about the information-gathering
stage that we are in at the moment, details of what must be considered before
decisions can be made, the decision-making process, and how other zoos have
addressed issues similar to ours,” the e-mail states.
Wikenhauser stressed that taxpayers should keep an
open mind about the zoo’s long-term options while being realistic about the
county’s core responsibilities.
“If we keep going through these multimillion-dollar
holes in the budget, pretty soon people will ask if the zoo is a core service
of the county and if it will fund it at any cost,” Wikenhauser said.
De Bruin warned that the zoo could be privatized,
more or less, simply by Walker’s
continued funding shortages for it.
“The county executive may just put ‘reduce the
funding for the zoo commensurate with a public/private partnership’ in the 2011
budget,” De Bruin said. “And if the board didn’t agree with that it would be
forced to backfill funding for the zoo and keep it publicly run.”