County may give zoo more money

November 23, 2009
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The positive face of Kent County may only close for four months next year instead of five, and county officials may look into adding a watering hole to the 18-hole L.E. Kaufman Golf Course.

Because John Ball Zoo Director Bert Vescolani had to make about $700,000 worth of cuts to the facility’s budget next year, he suggested closing the county-owned zoo for five months from November 2010 until April 2011.

“This is it. This is the positive face we present to the public,” said Commissioner Carol Hennessy of the zoo.

But members of the county’s Finance Committee asked Vescolani a few weeks ago to tell them how much it would cost to reopen the zoo March 1 instead of April 1. He did that last week.

Based on admission fees, Vescolani said an additional $19,144 in his budget would allow the zoo to reopen in March. “If we get a couple of nice weekends in March, we’ll do very well. If we don’t, we won’t,” he said.

Commissioner and Finance Committee Chairman Dean Agee wondered out loud whether the county should reach into its reserve for the funds or capture the money from somewhere else.

The zoo’s 2010 budget is $3.8 million, down from $4.5 million this year. Closing for five months would shave $75,200 from the expense side of the ledger. Planned job reductions at the zoo would save another $220,000. Commissioners are currently considering upping the zoo’s admission charges, which would raise $143,000.

But the John Ball Zoo Society is undertaking a public fundraising effort to generate $100,000 and has asked the commission not to increase admission fees if it reaches its goal.

Zoo Society Executive Director Brenda Stringer said the effort had raised $31,600 as of last week. “We do believe it is important to keep the zoo open for as many months as possible,” she said. “We hope to reach our goal by the end of the year.”

Vescolani said the zoo attracted 420,000 people through the gates this year and would likely surpass 400,000 next year, if it was open the entire year. The zoo’s revenue has been about $1.5 million for the past few years, double the income the facility drew in 2005.

Commissioner Jim Talen said something had to be done about the $43,000 difference between the Zoo Society’s campaign goal and the amount of money an admission increase would bring. Vescolani indicated he would do that at the next meeting.

“I can flippantly say we will get there, but I can show you how we will get there,” he said.

The Finance Committee also discussed the possibility of adding leagues and a liquor license to the county-owned L.E. Kaufman Golf Course on Clyde Park Avenue between 44th and 52nd streets. “Let’s give the golf course a chance to survive and make some money,” said Commissioner Richard Vander Molen.

But County Parks Director Roger Sabine said the course regularly has an $80,000 surplus at the end of the fiscal year. “The golf course operates in the black. We’ve eliminated three staff positions in the last three years,” he said.

One obstacle to selling alcoholic beverages in the clubhouse is state law doesn’t let the county do that. “We’re not allowed at this point to sell beer. The legislation would have to be changed,” said Sabine.

Another barrier is a county policy that prohibits competing with privately owned golf courses. “There is a policy issue with competing with private clubs,” said Daryl Delabbio, county administrator and controller.

Sabine estimated that alcohol sales would add another $40,000 to $50,000 in revenue to the course’s budget each year.

The course has an annual budget of $572,000 this year, but the 2010 budget is facing a 22 percent reduction to $443,146. The course’s clubhouse has a budget of $219,000 this year, which is projected to drop by 9 percent next year.

Commissioner James Vaughn questioned whether the county should even be in the golf business, let alone add liquor sales to the clubhouse.

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