Kent Commissioners Review New Zoo

September 6, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Although Kent County commissioners offered strong praise for the John Ball Zoo expansion plan they recently accepted, a few board members wondered out loud where the money would come from for the expansion and to operate a larger zoo.

Like the Purchase of Development Rights program the county also approved, it’s unlikely any taxpayer dollars will go into the zoo project and it’s possible the county may not be able to offer more funds for the expanded zoo’s operations, at least for the next few years.

“They have to have a business plan that stands on its own,” said David Morren, county commission chairman, of the John Ball Zoo Society.

The zoo received $3.46 million for operations from the county’s general fund in 2003, $3.44 million in 2004 and $3.72 million this year, with $3.89 million on tap for 2006.

The plan submitted by the society would expand the zoo over all its 103 acres and would likely raise the cost to operate it, because the zoo would have double the number of exhibits it currently has when the expansion is finished.

But the county is facing cuts to its general fund of $3.25 million in 2007, $4.5 million in 2008 and $5.5 million in 2009. So the county may not be able to raise its fiscal commitment to the zoo during those years while it expands.

The zoo also gets revenue each year from the county’s lodging excise tax. It got $410,000 in 2003, $432,000 in 2004, and is projected to get $401,500 this year. A figure for 2006 hasn’t been released. Tax revenue to the fund, though, has been projected to rise to $4.6 million, or about $200,000 more than this year’s expected take.

But the fund balance, or reserve account, for that levy is thinning fairly rapidly — $1.1 million was withdrawn last year and $1.6 million is expected to be spent this year to cover expenses that are rising faster than receipts. And next year the fund is expected to dwindle by another $1.4 million unless revenue increases by that amount.

The fund balance makes the bond payments on DeVos Place and that debt service rises by 3.8 percent each year. Revenue to the account, which comes from a 5 percent tax on hotel and motel tabs, isn’t keeping pace with that annual hike. Making those payments for the convention center is the only fixed expense the county has for the lodging-tax receipts.

County Fiscal Services Director Robert White has told commissioners the fund balance could be gone by 2009 unless revenue rises to meet growing expenses. If the reserve is lost, then expenditures will have to be adjusted and county officials have already told the society that its funding level from the hotel-motel tax could change.

Commissioner Dick Bulkowski, whose district contains the zoo, told Executive Director Brenda Stringer that her organization may not be able to count on money coming from the lodging excise tax in a few years. Stringer said she was aware of that and told Bulkowski that the society was looking at a number of revenue streams that it would apply to operations.

The expansion project itself is expected to cost from $75 million to $100 million and be accomplished in a number of phases over several years. The first phase calls for a new grizzly bear exhibit, along with a new zoo entrance and a community plaza. Work could start as early as next year. If so, the first phase would be completed in 2007.

Zoo Society Director Bert Vescolani said he expects that a private fundraising effort will pay for the construction. The society will conduct a feasibility study to determine how much money it can hope to raise.

Commissioner Harold Mast asked how the zoo’s fundraiser would affect a similar effort that is underway for Millennium Park, a 1,500-acre work-in-progress that is also owned by the county. Morren said having the zoo raise money wouldn’t be any different than having any other group ask for dollars.

Despite concerns about funding for the project and operations, county commissioners welcomed the plan with open arms. Morren told Stringer and Vescolani that they had a great vision for the zoo. Bulkowski said the neighbors liked the plan. And the board unanimously gave its approval to the path the society was charting for the zoo.

“It’s great to see this diamond being polished,” said Commissioner Tom Postmus. “I think we’re off and running with the right direction with the right plan in the right place.”    

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