Vilas Zoo will continue to operate as it always has, despite a breakdown in negotiations with the nonprofit that runs its concessions and guest services and raises money for the zoo, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said in a letter to the organization.
The county, which operates the zoo, is severing its ties with the Henry Vilas Zoological Society on March 31. In a memo to County Board members, Parisi questioned the society’s financial decisions and its commitment to maintaining accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The society will need to stop its operations and move out of the zoo by March 31, which would leave the concession facilities and gift shop unstaffed April 1. Sup. Chuck Erickson, who represents the district surrounding the admission-free zoo, has introduced a resolution to hire nine full-time-equivalent employees for about $620,000. That resolution will be brought before the County Board in the coming weeks.
In his letter to the society, Parisi said the zoo will continue to function as is, even without the society operating anything on the grounds.
“Concessions will operate. The Carousel will turn,” Parisi wrote, saying zookeepers and staff “are 110 percent committed to making sure those who step through those turnstiles on April 1 will have the same on grounds experience that families have come to expect from our fabulous free zoo for many decades.”
Parisi also sent a memo to the County Board to provide background information on Erickson’s resolution and why the contract with the society is ending.
According to IRS documents and Parisi’s memo to the board, the society generated $3.8 million in revenue in 2017 — the last year with completed reports — and spent close to $1 million on staffing. Parisi said the society gave the county $855,400 in 2017.
The society paid QTI Group, a staffing firm, $922,147 in 2017 to fund employees’ salaries, benefits and other employment costs. Parisi, in his memo, questioned why the society would hire an outside group.
Amy Supple, vice chairwoman of the society’s board, said the organization hired a staffing firm to lower costs. QTI operates human resources and payroll needs for the society’s 13 full-time staff members and about 50 part-time employees for less than it would have cost the society to hire hire its own human resources and payroll managers.
Parisi said in the memo that the county would be able to funnel more donation funds directly into the zoo if it had control over the operations the society currently manages.
The society has said it is funding its staff at appropriate levels, funding all requests made by the county and saving extra money to ensure financial stability for the zoo and to fund future projects.
Josh Wescott, Parisi’s chief of staff, said the county will request proposals from organizations interested in operating concessions and guest services in the next year. He said the society would be able to submit its own proposal.
“Perhaps the current rate of return is the best deal the zoo can get, but like any public service we won’t know that until we (request proposals),” Wescott said.
Wescott said Friday the county would continue to solicit private funding for the zoo. Some of that funding would continue to go toward salaries for county zoo staff, which could include concessions and guest services workers hired by the county to replace the society employees.
Parisi also questioned why society president Alison Prange’s salary was $155,293, which is about twice as much as her predecessor, who made about $75,000.
Supple said Prange’s salary is on the upper-end of the mid-range for comparable nonprofit directors in the region, which was determined by QTI. She said the society’s board also took into account the expanded role she has taken with an increase in fundraising events and on-site operations — such as the introduction of the annual Zoo Lights event and the opening of Glacier Grille — when it was deciding her compensation.
The board also looked at Prange’s success in fundraising and encouraging new donors, Supple said.
“Frankly, Alison gets results,” Supple said.
Parisi said in his memo to the County Board that he wants increased transparency in funding and donation allocations.
The Henry Vilas Zoo Commission, the county’s zoo oversight committee, has not discussed or even mentioned the contract with the society or the negotiations in the past year, according to meeting minutes.
The county has historically kept proposal and contract selections out of the public eye until after a contract is approved by the County Board and signed.