Council balks at price tag for zoo support

With a full house at Monday's Scottsbluff City Council meeting, Director Anthony Mason of the Riverside Zoo discusses the venue's future as he seeks further negotiations with the city on a new operations support agreement.

Members of Scottsbluff City Council agreed the Riverside Zoo needs to continue operating as a valuable community asset, but the zoo’s request for support wasn’t sustainable for the city.

At Monday’s council meeting, members considered the zoo’s proposed operation support agreement. It’s a five-year agreement that asks the city for $350,000 for each of the next two fiscal years, then $300,000 annually for the following three years, based on changes in the Consumer Price Index.

The zoo’s current contract with the city expires at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2020.

Council members Jeanne McKerrigan and Nathan Green agreed there needs to be some modifications to the proposed agreement.

Fellow council member Terry Schaub was especially hesitant about how much the zoo was asking in support.

“It’s not that I don’t acknowledge the zoo, but the city would have to dip into its reserves to offer this kind of support,” Schaub said. “I just don’t see how the city can afford this agreement.”

Schaub asked where the money would come from. Some ideas discussed in the past have been a hike on the city’s property tax asking, an occupation tax on cell phone usage and taxing restaurants.

“If you look at the $350,000 the zoo is asking for, the monies just aren’t there by the time the new contract agreement expires in 2025,” Schaub said.

According to McKerrigan, the council needs to do something. “We can’t just keep dragging this out,” she said. “We need to set a deadline for getting an agreement done; we can’t just walk away and set up the zoo for failure. The zoo will probably never get to the point of being self-supporting, but we need to figure out at which level they can operate.”

Brenden Rice is a zoo board member and attorney for the organization. He told council members he’d like to see the zoo board and city staff work together in small group meetings as the best avenue for moving a new agreement forward.

“We need to set a deadline and have this wrapped up by the end of the year,” he said. “We’ve already lost out on several grants from several foundations because of a lack of clarity from the city.”

Anthony Mason, director of Riverside Discovery Center, also spoke to council members. He said a lot of the new proposed agreement was based on the previous contract, which is now in place.

“We realize this is a negotiation, so we’re happy to continue the conversation,” Mason said. “I know the city appreciates the zoo and want the best for it just as we do. I think we can move forward in good faith and get something hammered out that works for everyone.”

Mason agreed the zoo may not get to the point of being self-sustainable, but they’re making progress. That progress will become easier as they experience more support and stability.

Scottsbluff agreed to assign City Manager Nathan Johnson, along with council members Green and McKerrigan to serve on the new small group to discuss the way forward for the zoo.

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Jerry Purvis is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9046 or emailed at jpurvis@starherald.com.

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(1) comment

Joe Bloe

If the zoo is that important, (I'm neither for or against the zoo), let those who are so concerned about the funding of the zoo step forward and invest their own money in the endeavor to keep the zoo viable. Why is it always up to the taxpayer to fund everything that some people see as a necessity? We are overtaxed in this state and if you want these options for entertainment, send the zoo a check.

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