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Cover Story: Keeping Secrets?

More than a year after loud calls for public accountability, zoo officials still argue that using public funds doesn't make zoo records public

By Nancy Firor · March 11th, 1999 · Cover Story
  Stuart Dornette, representing the zoo in contract negotiations, says the zoo will turn over all documents the county wishes to see � but that information will not be public record.
Stuart Dornette, representing the zoo in contract negotiations, says the zoo will turn over all documents the county wishes to see � but that information will not be public record.

Hamilton County taxpayers will pay Cincinnati Zoo expenses that could include more than 100 zoo salaries when the zoo starts getting its levy funds that were approved last year.

But zoo officials still think that the employees' specific salaries and other zoo matters are none of the public's business. And the holdout could hold up their public funds indefinitely.

"Salary information on an individual basis is confidential," said Bob Coleman, human resources director for the zoo.

Despite loud calls from county tax watchdogs for the zoo to be more open with its records and decrease its reliance on public funds, the zoo's latest proposal for how it will spend about $6.2 million a year in tax funds shows that the zoo would prefer to do neither, at least not right away. The zoo also is trying to deflect a county proposal to give Hamilton County residents four free weekend days at the zoo annually.

County commissioners, who ultimately will decide what contract to approve, say it's too early to publicly discuss the contract's development even though it has been underway since last summer. While the zoo is supposed to start getting the funds at the end of this month, the funds won't be dispersed until an agreeable contract is signed, commissioners said.

"We've found it's better not to overreact to a position that might be displayed in a negotiation process," Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus said.

The negotiations are the county's first attempt to regulate and account for tax funds that, until a levy defeat in 1997, had been been turned over to the zoo since 1982.

The contract was proposed as a solution to controversy surrounding the zoo's use of public funds that erupted in April 1997 after CityBeat reported that there was no government audit or oversight of public funds given to the zoo.

For the story, the zoo refused to make public certain information, including certain zoo salaries, despite the fact that public money helped pay for them.

The zoo has followed a county request to identify specific zoo departments in which tax funds will be used instead of co-mingling the funds with the general fund, as it has done in the past, making it difficult if not impossible to directly track the tax dollars.

But in a recent counterproposal, the zoo has deleted a measure proposed by the county that would require the zoo to turn payroll by position over to the county.

If the county wants to review that information, the county can have access to it, said Stuart Dornette, a lawyer representing the zoo in the negotiations. But he said that because the actual documents would not be turned over, the information would not become public record.

In addition to deleting the county's proposal that payroll records be turned over, the zoo's latest proposal:

· Disregards a county plan aimed at reducing the zoo's reliance on public funds in favor of one that will take 20 to 25 years to build a budget that can sustain the zoo without levy funds.

· Proposes that Hamilton County residents be entitled to half-priced admission on six Monday and Tuesday evenings during the summer instead of the four free weekend days county commissioners asked for.

· Deletes certain accounting and reporting requirements proposed by the county, which included requiring the zoo to turn over certain audit documents.

Among the items deleted was a requirement that the zoo turn over to the county reports related to the annual audit of the zoo, done by a private company, in addition to the audit itself.

In 1997, the zoo's refusal to turn over two such reports to the Hamilton County Tax Levy Review Committee turned into a clash that almost kept the committee from recommending that the zoo's levy be placed on the ballot. The reports, which were turned over after the county threatened to keep the levy off the ballot, found problems with the zoo's accounting controls over cash and its compliance with federal regulations designed to ensure that federal grants to the zoo were accounted for.

Dornette said that, in making counterproposals, the zoo did not intend to attempt to alter the county's authority. And because, under the zoo's counterproposal, the county would have access to the pertinent records, it would have the ability to conduct its own audits and review any reports issued by the accountants who audit the zoo annually, he said.

Again, he said, if the documents were not turned over to the county, they would not be public record.

As for payroll records, the zoo has argued that other than its top five salaries that have to be reported on the zoo's federal income tax form -- a public record -- zoo salaries are not public record.

Complaints about nepotism at the zoo have fueled the argument by some that salaries should be disclosed for public review. Three top zoo managers are relatives or former relatives of zoo Executive Director Edward Maruska. But Dornette said that in the two years that disclosing salaries has been debated, the zoo's position had not changed: Those employees are entitled to privacy.

The zoo does not fear that any discrepancies would arise if salaries were compared, Dornette said.

The 106 positions that could be paid by the taxpayer include the zoo's curators, area supervisors, veterinarians, keepers and head keepers.

Christopher Finney, former chairman of the Tax Levy Review Committee, said that if the county approved the zoo's current proposal, it would violate the spirit of recommendations the committee made after reviewing the levy for placement on the ballot in 1997. Although that levy failed, a new proposal passed last year after the zoo removed the portion that would provide funds to build a $20 million parking garage.

"(Private) Institutions that receive public funds should have the same open records policies as publicly funded organizations," Finney said.

When commissioners began formulating their proposed conditions in May, they did not commit to requiring the zoo to divulge all salaries. But two of the three commissioners -- Bedinghaus and John Dowlin -- did support requiring the zoo to disclose salaries of all administrators regardless of whether tax funds were used to pay their salaries.

At the time, Jim Harper, chief assistant county prosecutor, told reporters there was legal precedent in Ohio that would indicate that records relating to the use of public funds by private companies were public record.

"My goal is to understand exactly where it is where taxpayer dollars are spent," Bedinghaus said March 3.

But he said his main concern was the county's access to the records it needed to ensure the zoo was accountable to taxpayers.

Does the public have the right to know the salaries of 106 employees in the four zoo departments where the taxpayers' money will be used?

Bedinghaus said he did not yet have all of the information he needed to comment on the zoo's proposal.

In its draft proposal, the county also outlined a levy spending plan that would "be utilized to eliminate or at least significantly lower the (zoo's) reliance on levy funding."

Under that plan, the county would pay the zoo the full annual levy amount -- estimated at $6,217,260 for 1999. But in 2000, the county would pay 97 percent of the amount and continue to drop the amount by 3 percent for each year of the five-year levy.

"The excess receipts will carry forward each year and it is anticipated that the resulting surplus will be utilized to provide transition resources to the zoo in the event there is not renewal or replacement," according to the commissioners' proposal.

Finney said that when the Tax Levy Review Committee discussed decreasing the zoo's dependence on tax dollars, it was expected that the zoo would begin to make reductions immediately and be operating levy free within a period of about 10 years, meaning that it would seek only one more levy.

But the zoo has countered with a proposal that calls for the county to turn over all of the funds. In turn, when or if the zoo seeks a renewal or replacement levy, it will do so at a level that would bring in fewer dollars than collected in 1999 -- discounting the effect of inflation -- during the first year only of the new levy, according to the zoo's counterproposal.

Dornette said that a detailed study and projections showed that the zoo needed 20 to 25 years to build up a private endowment fund of $100 million to $120 million for the zoo to be able to carry on without levy funds.

In reality, he said, organizations that continue to seek levy approval continue to increase the amount each time they seek renewal or replacement.

By proposing that the next levy would bring in less in the first year than it did this year, the zoo was making a sincere effort to begin to reduce its reliance on public funds, Dornette said.

"We said, 'Hey, break that cycle,' " he said.

Dornette said zoo officials also thought their proposal to give county residents six half-priced evening admissions would be seen as a significant benefit.

The zoo, he said, was proposing evenings because during peak seasons, the zoo has a parking problem up until about 2 p.m.

"We wanted county residents to come in at a time when they wouldn't incur a problem," Dornette said.

But in addition to parking problems, zoo membership sales could suffer as a result of the proposal commissioners have made for county residents to get four free weekend days, he said.

The zoo has about 50,000 family memberships, he said, and most of those people come on weekends. The zoo is concerned about whether these people would continue to buy memberships, he said.

Commissioner Dowlin declined to comment, and Commission President Tom Neyer Jr. was out of town.

Rob Fredericks, Dowlin's administrative aide, said Dowlin and the other commissioners generally do not get involved in or comment on such negotiations because that is the job of county staff.

But Dowlin, he said, is committed to ensuring standards of accountability and openness that the zoo has not been held to in the past.

Regardless of what agreement county staff negotiates with the zoo, the commissioners have to approve it for it to take effect and for the zoo to start getting the money, Fredericks said. The zoo, he said, simply will not get its money until an acceptable agreement is presented.

And, he said, the commissioners "ultimately have the authority to pick it apart." ©



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