Henry Vilas Zoological Society contract with Dane County could expire

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- The Henry Vilas Zoological Society (HVZS) announced its decision not to sign a proposed contract with Dane County on Friday.

The proposed contract, created by Dane County, was intended to replace the HVZS’ current five-year contract, which is set to expire March 31. The deadline was initially March 15, according to the HVZS.

Dane County has contracted with the HVZS to provide direct financial support, operate concessions and attractions like the carousel and train, to coordinate volunteers and to assist with educational programming, according to HVZS.

“Unfortunately, much to our disappointment, the county has recently put forth terms that we cannot agree to and that will significantly diminish the ability of the parties to continue under a highly successful public-private partnership,” Tom Hanson, president of the Board of Directors at the HVZS, said in a statement.

Amy Supple, Vice Chair of the Henry Vilas Zoological Society Board, said the current terms would make HVZS "less effective" as an organization.

"If we’re not on the county grounds, that makes us less effective. If we’re not the only fundraising organization for the zoo, that makes us really less effective," she said. "If we’re not really able to have a community voice and do community outreach, then that makes us even less effective, and if we take away the on grounds operations, we essentially have to gut our organization completely and what we do relative to guest experience."

HVZS said the new contract proposed by Dane County included organizational and procedural changes that would have limited the scope and responsibilities of the HVZS. Among them, Dane County would have required the HVZS to move its offices and staff off zoo grounds and turn over volunteer coordination and concession operations.

"We’re a successful organization, we’re a successful partner for the county, and we’re being dismissed with almost no notice and really with no reason for why it’s happening," said Supple. "So that’s why we rejected the proposal."

“If the Society’s intent was truly to support the zoo, dollars raised at the zoo and in the name of the zoo would go back to the zoo,” Dane County Executive Chief of Staff Josh Wescott said in a letter to the HVZS, “Instead, funds raised in recent years have gone to accounts inaccessible to the zoo, without the zoo’s knowledge.”

County executive Joe Parisi said in a statement that the HVZS has more staff members than utilized to run the entire zoo, and Wescott said their payment competes against funding for the zoo itself. The proposed contract also would have reduced the role of the HVZS in providing annual financial support to the zoo.

“The Board of Directors simply did not feel that the terms outlined by the County would have enabled HVZS to do its best work,” Dan O’Callaghan, legal representative for the HVZS said. O’Callaghan advised the HVZS during contract negotiations.

“You can imagine our surprise when we learned in your letter than you have 68 employees that work for the Society,” Wescott said. “The Society’s push to increase its own staff created artificial and inefficient demand for precious financial resources raised on zoo grounds.”

Supple said if the county does not return to negotiations, those employees will have to be laid off.

"We have 14 full time staff and then there are about 63 people that work in the Glacier Grille, in the carousel, assisting with educational efforts and other efforts around the zoo," said Supple. "All of those people are going to be out of a job in two weeks if the county doesn’t come back to the table, and that seems very unfair to us. We have had great success over the last five years, there have never been any complaints about the way we operate."

The HVZS Endowment Fund – approximately $1.5 million -- was established as a result of a major gift from a local philanthropist. the HVZS created the endowment to expand programming and to ensure availability of resources, according to the HVZS.

Over the last five years, the HVZS raised enough funds to create an operating reserve. The reserve is approximately $3 million, and in place to assist the zoo in times of economic downturn, according to the HVZS.

“Henry Vilas Zoo is free to all guests, but it is not free to operate,” Jason Maas, treasurer of the HVZS board said. “We determined it was fiscally responsible to create the operating reserve, the sole purpose of which is to support the zoo.”

"Funds raised in recent years have gone to accounts inaccessible to the zoo, without the zoo's knowledge," Wescott said. “It’s unacceptable that public grounds are being utilized to raise dollars for a fund in which financial transactions are made without transparency.”

The HVZS and Dane County received several commendations from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in its Accreditation Report issued in summer 2018.

“We appreciate the many positive comments the AZA made about our partnership with the county,” Hanson said. “We believe unequivocally that the HVZS has had a significant, positive impact on the zoo by creating a financially sound organization that is well positioned for the future.”

Wescott said the HVZS "remains hostile" to the AZA's accreditation requirement that a support organization not exercise control over the operations of the zoo. He added that if the HVZS and Dane County signed the agreement put forth by the HVZS, accreditation would have been lost in 2019.

If the new contract is not signed, the county is prepared to provide the funds necessary to ensure the transition minimizes interruptions to visitors at the zoo, according to Wescott.

“When complete, those who come to see our free zoo and donate to it will be able to do so knowing with 100 percent certainty the dollars they’re giving to support the care and well-being of these animals will go to the animals,” Wescott said.

Parisi released a statement on Sunday afternoon saying in part, "Right now, too many hard-earned dollars given by moms, dads, and kids are going directly to an enterprise that is supposed to raise money for the zoo. This enterprise now funds more positions for itself than what county government uses to run the entire zoo." He continued in that statement saying, "Dane County will have new partners who appropriately place focus and priority on our incredible zoo"

The HVZS Board of Directors will remain in place at the conclusion of the current contract ending March 31, and to ensure that all existing funds raised by the HVZS will be properly distributed toward zoo initiatives. Those funds, including the endowment and operating reserve, currently stand at more than $6 million.

Based on the terms of the current agreement between the HVZS and Dane County, if a new contract is not signed by March 31, the remaining funds will be deposited into a trust account. Any disbursements from the trust account will require written approval by both the HVZS and Dane County.

The HVZS is still hopeful that a new agreement can be reached before the current agreement expires.

“We have asked the county for a short-term extension of the current agreement, which would allow us to return to the negotiating table and continue discussion with the county about how to reach a successful partnership agreement,” Hanson said.