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Zoo Gets It; Commissioners Still Trying

By Nancy Firor and Kris Royer Henninger · April 8th, 1999 · Burning Questions
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No free weekend days. And no public disclosure of 106 salaries that will be paid by Hamilton County taxpayers at the Cincinnati Zoo.

These are among the highlights of a contract that has been agreed upon between the zoo and Hamilton County commissioners, who last year argued for more public disclosure and four free weekend days at the zoo for county residents.

The contract is the county's first effort to oversee the zoo's use of public funds. In keeping with the zoo levy that passed last year, the zoo will be getting about $6.2 million a year.

Zoo negotiators argued that if they turned over payroll records as the county's proposal originally required, then the salaries of those employees would become public record. They also argued that providing free weekend days for county residents would increase parking problems and seriously deter membership sales.

Why did commissioners decide not to make the zoo turn over payroll records?

"I would've preferred that the zoo go further than they did," Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus said.

He said that issue was of "serious concern" to him. He said the fact that the zoo is only complying with disclosing the top five salaries -- which it has to list on its federal income tax return, which is public record anyway -- indicates that they "still don't get it."

Commissioner Tom Neyer Jr. noted that the county could access salary information if it needed to even though members of the public who are paying those salaries could not.

Commissioner John Dowlin said that all of the past controversy was over executives' payroll.

But the 106 salaries that will not be disclosed include curators, some of whom are relatives or former relatives of the zoo's director, area supervisors, veterinarians, keepers and head keepers.

"Really, we're not interested in the elephant keeper's salary," Dowlin said.

Why did commissioners decide it would be OK for the zoo to only give county residents half-priced admission on one full weekday and two partial weekdays after 4 p.m.?

Bedinghaus said the free weekend days were in conflict with asking the zoo to be less reliant on taxpayer funds.

While the zoo has agreed not to increase the amount when it seeks a new levy, the contract does not include a county provision to hold three percent in the last four years of this levy. That proposal was aimed at reducing the zoo's reliance on public funds and creating a surplus that the zoo could use if it found itself in transition.

Neyer said, "The zoo demonstrated that (free weekend days) would be in conflict with our other goal -- that would be the zoo's reliance on a tax levy."

Dowlin said, "I was persuaded that having it on the weekend would make it so crowded that it would make it a negative instead of a positive."

Were any of the commissioners perhaps persuaded to go along with the zoo's proposal by certain influential members of the zoo's board of trustees?

"I had an opportunity to speak with Rob Sibcy (board president) a couple of times," Bedinghaus said. "I think Rob needs to have a better understanding of the need for full disclosure when dealing with pubic money, and I would hope that they pay more attention to that in the future."

Neyer said, "I had conversations in and out of (county commissioner) meetings, with advocates for the zoo as I would with any other interest groups."

Dowlin said he met individually with Sibcy.

"I was not out after a pound of flesh and everything that I heard from our staff people who were negotiating the contract was acceptable to me."

Sex Ed: Success or Failure?
The good news about sexually transmitted diseases seems to have reversed itself.

According to statistics released last month by the Ohio Department of Health, the number of cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea have doubled statewide in the past three years.

Cincinnati had the highest number of cases per capita.

"This is a serious health concern," Sue Momeyer, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky, said in an April 1 news release. "It comes down to making responsible choices and staying healthy."

But at this time last year, Planned Parenthood officials were saying that more people, especially younger teens, were doing just that.

Based on data from the Cincinnati Health Department and the Ohio Department of Health, Planned Parenthood and other agencies reported in April 1998 that new cases of gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia decreased 68 percent and 37 percent, respectively, in 1996.

"We are seeing public education pay off," Momeyer said in a news release issued at the time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported last year that more than half of American high school students were saying no to sex. And those who were sexually active were using condoms at the greatest rate to be recorded in the 1990s, the study concluded.

But according to Planned Parenthood's April 1 release, the Kaiser Family Foundation has released a study that shows 67 percent of sexually experienced teen-agers, ages 15 to 17, said they were "not much" or "not at all" at risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

"Young people need honest and accurate information about (sexually transmitted diseases) and how to protect themselves and stay healthy," Julia Piercey, Planned Parenthood's director of education said in the release.

So what happened to last year's celebration over how all the public education was beginning to pay off?

Amy Genagon, the communications coordinator for Planned Parenthood who issued the organization's latest news release, said Planned Parenthood did not have a theory for why the trend had changed.

But, she said, it is clear that more education efforts are needed to reach teen-agers, particularly those ages 15 to 17

"A lot of them feel that they're just not at risk ...," she said. "They're not aware."

 
 
 
 

 

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