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In this file photo from May 2015, Cecilia Endres, 8, left and her sister, Amira, 5, of Waunakee, get a visit from a polar bear as they wait for their lunch at the Glacier Grille during the grand opening of the Arctic Passage at Henry Vilas Zoo.

Dane County is moving with haste to take control of functions currently handled by the county zoo’s fundraising organization, which is mounting a last-ditch effort to salvage a relationship that has soured to the breaking point in recent weeks.

Zoo officials announced Friday that the county plans to hire nine employees of the Henry Vilas Zoological Society who work in the zoo’s Glacier Grille, gift shop and operate the popular carousel.

County Executive Joe Parisi later announced that he selected a group that works with the Alliant Energy Center, Centerplate, to serve those functions.

“Centerplate has been a phenomenal partner in advancing upgrades to the AEC campus, providing significant financial support for expanded kitchen and food service work that will now also benefit Dane County’s Zoo too,” Parisi said in a press release.

He said the employees the county hires from the zoological society will be considered for jobs with Centerplate. He added that giving Centerplate the contract will allow the company to use those employees at both venues.

“While the zoo generally has fewer visitors in winter, Centerplate operations are busy hosting events at the AEC during those months,” the press release states. “Likewise, the zoo’s busy season in summer coincides with a slower period for conventions at the AEC.”

The zoological society, meanwhile, has put forward a proposal to hand over all on-ground operations to the county while remaining the lead fundraising arm for the zoo.

Relations between the county and the Henry Vilas Zoological Society, which has partnered with the zoo for more than a century, nosedived during negotiations over a new contract, which expired on Jan.1 and was extended to March 31 while the two sides tried to come to an agreement.

Adding to the bad feelings, the society filed a complaint last fall with the county alleging harassment of the president of the society by zoo director Ronda Schwetz. A county investigation found no reason to discipline Schwetz.

In recent days, Parisi has taken an adversarial public stance against the society, comparing the group’s request for more after-hours access to animal trainings and feedings for donor parties and events to a “carnival” and blasting its financial decisions.

Parisi said the group, which has amassed more than $6 million in reserves, hasn’t shared enough of that windfall with the zoo. Zoological society leaders say that money can be tapped for zoo projects and provide stability in times of need.

The society also owes the county $800,000 under the current contract. 

The society on Friday offered a proposal that would hand off all zoo functions to the county while the society continued fundraising efforts and overseeing memberships, marketing and events.

The society also suggested using an independent mediator to help finalize a new contract.  

“If the county will accept this proposal we think that this is a good solution to move the zoo forward in a very positive way,” said Amy Supple, vice chair of the zoological society board.

The county, in the press release announcing the Centerplate contract, signaled that an agreement is still within reach. It said that county and zoological society representatives have met for nearly seven hours this week to discuss the transition of jobs, adding, “The county relayed to the President of the Society its intent to continue dialogue about a longer-term partnership.”

How that partnership would play out would depend to some degree on input from an independent consultant who has worked for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which certifies those facilities. Parisi has complained that the society’s proposals to increase its access to animal feedings and other animal interactions for donor events threaten that certification.

The county is in the process of hiring that consultant, who will provide guidance on best practices nationally for partnerships between zoos and support organizations.

Those recommendations will be factored into a request for proposals that the county plans to issue next summer to find a fundraising partner.

With more than $6 million in the bank, mostly in reserves and a $1.5 million endowment, the financial implications of a severing of ties remains unclear.

Supple said if the county and the society don’t come to an agreement, the contract calls for assets to be placed in a trust administered jointly by both sides.

Asked how that money would be dispersed, she said, “We’re not sure exactly what that looks like.”

Supple responded to statements from Parisi this week that appeared specifically intended to put the society in a bad light.

Parisi has repeatedly focused on maintaining Association of Zoos and Aquariums certification in his public statements in support of cutting the zoological society out of zoo operations.

Supple pointed out that a certification report from the organization in September included glowing statements about the society, which the report said was “integral” to the zoo’s operation.

“The Society has been instrumental in raising capital funds for projects while simultaneously directing a certain portion of funds into endowment helping to provide financial stability for the zoo in hard times,” the report says.

The inspectors gave kudos to the president of the society.

“The Society President, Alison Prange, deserves praise for the role she has played in organizing the Society and for developing a strategic plan that provides structure for the interdependent roles of the zoo and society entities,” they wrote.

Parisi also suggested that the society, which has a paid staff of 68, has a bloated payroll.

But Supple said the society has 13 full-time staffers who work on fundraising, marketing, education, conservation, communications, development and organizing volunteer efforts.

The rest, she said, are part-time, often young workers filling shifts at the café or at the carousel.

“They might work an hour a week, they might work 10 hours a week,” she said. “It’s the kids who work down in the grill.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.