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Nonprofit says it wants its $6 million reserves to secure Vilas Zoo's future

Nonprofit says it wants its $6 million reserves to secure Vilas Zoo's future

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Zoological Society

Tressa Steuber, former membership director for the Henry Vilas Zoological Society, works to organize her computer files as part of the society's move-out process from the zoo's Visitor Center last month.

Dane County officials want to use about a quarter of the $6 million reserves raised by the Henry Vilas Zoological Society to fund zoo operations through the end of next year, the the society said in a news release Friday.

But Tom Hanson, board chairman of the nonprofit society whose partnership with the county ended last month, said in the release that donors gave that money expecting it to be used for future capital project and education- and conservation-related initiatives. 

Later Friday night, the society said the news release had been sent out in error. 

Asked if there were any factual errors in the news release, Hanson said, "I cannot comment on a press release that shouldn't have been issued."

The Wisconsin State Journal was not able to independently confirm details of a county proposal. Josh Wescott, chief of staff for County Executive Joe Parisi, and controller Chuck Hicklin did not respond to requests for comment.

Under the terms of the society's previous contract with the county, all unspent funds following the contract's expiration would need to be moved to a trust.

Hanson told the Wisconsin State Journal Friday night that the county and the society are discussing standards for the trust, and a new press release would then be issued.

Hanson was quoted in the initial news release saying the society would not allow the account to be used for the county's short-term operating expenses.

"(The society) remains committed to ensuring donor dollars remain dedicated to strategic zoo growth and long-term investments that help to ensure that our free zoo remains free forever," Hanson said in the statement.

The society had raised $6 million in reserve funds and an endowment before county negotiators determined that an agreement could not be reached to continue the decades-long partnership. 

According to the contract with the society that ran out, money placed in a trust could only be disbursed with authorization from both the society and the county and only for any outstanding obligations the society has and for the benefit of the zoo.

Society officials have said some donors put restrictions on their donations that require the funds be used for certain purposes. 

The society, which was founded in 1914, also operated the gift shop, concessions and the carousel and train rides. The society had partnered with the county since 1983, when the county took over operations from the city of Madison.

Negotiations ended last month when county officials determined they could not come to an agreement with the society and the society would need to end operations at and for the zoo when the contract expired.

County officials have said the $6 million raised and held by the society was too much to keep in reserves and should have been given more freely to the county's zoo operations, which include direct animal care.

The society has given $17 million to the zoo in the past decade, society board members say, which included funding half of the award-winning Arctic Passage exhibit, the entirety of the Wisconsin Heritage exhibit, which houses the zoo's badgers, and all of the Animal Health Center.

The society also funded three county staff positions at the zoo, including the deputy director and a zookeeper.

The society's former president Alison Prange has said the society's next project would have been a reconstruction of the zoo's main entrance.

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