Dane County moved forward Thursday with replacing the operations and positions at the Vilas Zoo that had previously been filled by a nonprofit partner.
The county ended its partnership with the Henry Vilas Zoological Society — which had run concessions, rides, the gift shop and fundraising — last month after negotiations broke down, requiring the county to fill those operational gaps ahead of the busy summer season.
The board voted 27-8 to approve a three-year contract with Centerplate to run concessions and rides after several board members raised questions relating to the shift from a nonprofit to a for-profit company operating concessions without a bidding process, as well as transparency and board oversight of contract negotiations.
Board members who spoke in favor of the contract said it was the only immediate way to maintain the zoo’s daily operations.
“Spring is around the corner, and we need to make sure that the zoo’s carousel, the children’s train, gift shop and Glacier Grille are fully staffed and ready to handle zoo visitors in the coming weeks,” said Sup. Chuck Erickson, 13th District, who sponsored and voted for the resolutions.
Other board members opposed the contract because of the terms under which it was coming before the board, including the board members’ short notice that negotiations with the society weren’t moving forward. County Executive Joe Parisi’s office did not tell the board members that there were problems with negotiations until the office determined on March 15 that it couldn’t negotiate further.
“I don’t feel a three-year, no-bid contract is a great way to start a new relationship,” said Sup. Jeremy Levin, 10th District, who voted against the contract. “I wish we would have had a more transparent process on this.”
The board also approved 28-2 nine new positions for the zoo that cost the county about $620,000 and would include four positions previously held by society staff, such as marketing and volunteer coordinators, as well as five new positions, including two zookeepers and a zoo manager, the county believes are needed after the Association of Zoos and Aquariums said last year the zoo was understaffed.
The separation of the Henry Vilas Zoological Society from the zoo followed 10 months of unsuccessful negotiations, with both the county and the society providing different reasons for why an agreement couldn’t be reached.
The county said the society stashed away too much money — upward of $6 million — and wouldn’t give up powers to the county’s zoo director that would have cost accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The society said the parties’ negotiators didn’t meet as a group enough to smooth out misunderstandings and that it saved money to ensure the zoo’s future financial stability.
Levin said cutting the relationship with the society, an organization that has supported the zoo for about 105 years, will cost the county money that had been willingly donated based in part on that history.
“We are really jeopardizing that funding source,” Levin said before voting against this second resolution.
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The contract with Centerplate, which operates concessions at the Alliant Energy Center, would last three years, with the county paying Centerplate $50,000 each year, according to the resolution before the County Board.
“Centerplate is not just a known entity. It’s a known entity that’s won previous bids with the county,” Sup. Patrick Miles, 34th district, who voted for the contract, said. “It’s not just picking them out of the blue.”
The county would keep the first $100,000 in profits each year, and Centerplate would keep 15 percent of profits above that. The contract would include a possible two-year extension.
“We’re crossing a line by entering a profit motive to the zoo where there had never been one,” said Sup. Tim Kiefer, 25th District, who voted against both resolutions.
The County Board voted to require that a contract go before the board in three years before it is extended to give the board more oversight of the contract.
Under the contract, Centerplate will be required to get prior approval from the county for menu or price changes but will have authority to hire and manage its own employees.
Centerplate will need to provide an operating budget for county approval within 15 days of the start date of the contract. Centerplate has not provided an estimated operating budget, county controller Chuck Hicklin said.
To fill the gap left by the society’s departure on March 31 before the Centerplate contract begins May 1, the county has hired close to 30 limited-term employees who had been society employees to continue operations at the Glacier Grille, gift shop, carousel and train ride, deputy zoo director Joseph Darcangelo said.
County officials said the limited-term employees would be considered for employment with Centerplate, but Kiefer noted that those employees are not guaranteed jobs nor are they guaranteed their current wages.
Hicklin said the length of the contract will allow the county to better understand how the concessions process works and what to request when seeking new bids.
“The three-year term will poise the county well for a full (bidding) process,” Hicklin said. “There’s some learning to be done both by us and by a vendor.”