The city may give the former Lakeview Community Center to the Racine Zoo, according to a plan presented to the City Council’s Finance Committee on Monday.
Racine Zoo CEO Jay Christie appeared before the committee requesting more money from the city to help the zoo break even in the coming years. The zoo is seeking a $50,000 increase in the city’s annual $550,000 payment, plus an additional 3.5 percent increase each year.
The zoo is also asking the city to give it the Belle City Senior Center, which is the former Lakeview Community Center. The center would allow the zoo to generate an additional $15,000 per year, plus get more parking near the zoo’s main entrance.
David Easley, chairman of the zoo's Board of Directors, said many more people would use the former community center if the zoo had control of it. Christie estimated thousands of people would use the center if it was run by the zoo, compared to "hundreds" who use it now as a senior center.
The committee spent most of its time discussing the zoo's request for the $50,000 increase. Alderman Tom Friedel, chairman of the Finance Committee, was skeptical of the proposal. He said he would support an annual increase that matches inflation, but not the one-time increase.
“Frankly, I have a hard time making a recommendation like,” he said. “If I had to vote on this today, I’d have a hard time … if that means a policeman is out of the budget, I’m not interested.”
Friedel also raised questions about why the zoo is projected to lose money in the coming years, despite making an additional $180,000 last year by charging a fee.
Christie said a combination of a cut in the amount of money Racine County paid the zoo and rising costs hurt the zoo’s bottom line. After the meeting, Christie also noted that the zoo’s Board of Directors voted in 2000 to use donations over $5,000 to build up its endowment, rather than paying day-to-day expenses. If the zoo doesn’t get additional public support, Christie said, the zoo would have to tap its endowment and cut back on its building projects to meet its budget needs.
“I hope nobody thinks we’re going back to the well too often, or asking for too much here,” Christie said.
Alderman Jim Spangenberg voted to refer the item to the City Council’s Committee of the Whole – a committee of all council members – for further discussion. Alderman David Maack suggested Christie bring animals to the meeting and give the council an update on the zoo’s success in operating the popular attraction for the city since 1989.
The Racine Zoo is run by a nonprofit organization that covers more than 60 percent of the cost of running the zoo.
The county had given $100,000 per year to help the zoo covers its operating expenses, but cut that number to zero in its last budget. The county may restore $15,000 in funding for the zoo in future budgets, Christie said.
Friedel said that Racine County Executive Bill McReynolds does not understand that money negotiated for the zoo in the sewer agreement between the city, Caledonia and Mount Pleasant does not count as county money.
The sewer money is technically excess reserves for the Racine sewer plant that came from Racine, Caledonia and Mount Pleasant. It’s not county money, Friedel said.
“He has a hard time understanding that. I don’t know why,” he said, adding: “It’s the same mistake he makes with the library.”
During the committee’s discussion, the aldermen noted that even if they supported the zoo’s request, they didn’t have control over the budget. Mayor Gary Becker writes the budget and the City Council approves it. Though the council can make changes to the mayor’s budget, it’s difficult to free up $50,000 for any one item.
“It’s still the mayor’s decision,” Spangenberg said. “He’s got to balance his budget for every factor.”