News: No New Hooters

Audits show zoo now using tax funds correctly

May 9, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Zoo Director Gregg Hudson is luring back key supporters.

The Cincinnati Zoo has apparently learned what it can and can't bill to Hamilton County taxpayers. A January 2001 report found the zoo had improperly spent more than $13,000 in tax funds. But the Hamilton County Department of Administrative Services says the zoo has been following the rules for more than a year.

The zoo relies on a Hamilton County property tax to cover about one-third of its $18 million operating budget. The tax dollars can be used only for animals, animal health, horticulture and maintenance.

"It really has to be related to direct operations," says Assistant County Administrator Eric Stuckey.

Last year's initial audit found the zoo had used tax funds for meals at a Hooter's restaurant to entertain foreign visitors, picnic tables built by a zoo employee on a special contract and other improper expenses in 1999 and 2000. The zoo later reimbursed the county.

Monthly reports from the past year indicate the county is keeping the zoo on a tight leash. A few expenses have been rejected outright, such as a pair of $59 memberships in the Fairfield Sportsman's Association, a $293 trip to Orlando by a member of the animal department and $595 in pest trapping.

But nearly all of the county's challenges have been about proper documentation, and nearly all were resolved without the county asking for levy money back.

The detailed audits have their roots in the 1997 defeat of a zoo levy, which would have paid for a $20 million parking garage across the street from the zoo. That year the zoo also refused to turn over certain financial documents to the Hamilton County Tax Levy Review Committee.

The following year voters approved a smaller levy that provides about $6 million a year, but not the garage. The levy comes up for renewal in 2003.

In April 1999 the zoo signed an agreement allowing the county to conduct random audits. But it took the county more than a year to act. The county hired an outside firm that checked expenses in four randomly selected months in 1999 and four in 2000, revealing the $13,000 in disputed costs.

Last year also brought a change in zoo leadership. Ed Maruska, now director emeritus, retired in 2000 after 39 years as the zoo's director. A 14-month search led the zoo's board of directors to hire Gregg Hudson, former director of the Fort Worth Zoo.

Hudson is focusing the Cincinnati Zoo's mission by improving basic facilities such as signs and rest rooms. He's also luring back key figures whose departures in the late 1990s shook the confidence of key zoo supporters.

Hudson's biggest success so far is Thane Maynard, who left Cincinnati in early 2000 to become director of the new Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center but returned in August. He's now the zoo's vice president in charge of conservation and education.

"You can take the boy out of the zoo, but you can't take the zoo out of the boy," Maynard says.

Maynard says he enjoyed his work in Seattle but missed the zoo's pace. He saw only 90 people on the Environmental Learning Center's busiest day. Now he sees that many people while looking out his office window.

The other attraction was the larger scope of the zoo's mission.

"The Cincinnati Zoo is a global organization," Maynard says.

The main difference, Maynard says, is Hudson is making sure the zoo is focused. If the zoo invests in cheetah and rhino research, for example, Hudson wants to make sure those zoo displays are first-rate, Maynard says.

The zoo still has some big questions to answer, such as its long-term dependence on the tax levy, a question the Tax Levy Review Committee raised in 1999. The goal, zoo leaders say, is to build an endowment fund large enough to support operations.

"We have absolutely started down that path," says attorney Mark Ruehlmann, president of the zoo's board of directors.

That fund today has about $19 million, including more than $750,000 raised in the past year, Hudson says. Past estimates call for at least $100 million to wean the zoo from the levy. Helping again is Nora Kelly, who resigned in 1999 as the zoo's director of planned giving. Kelly recently rejoined the zoo, Hudson says.

"We feel like we've made some good progress on that," he says. ©