Henry Vilas Zoo nonprofit, county partnership could end over zoo operations dispute

Henry Vilas Zoo nonprofit, county partnership could end over zoo operations dispute

A new contract between the Henry Vilas Zoological Society and Dane County has gone unsigned as the two sides have been unable to reach an agreement on the new terms.

The proposed contract was supposed to replace the current five-year contract that will expire March 31, officials said.

According to the HVZS, the new proposed contract would diminish the zoological society’s role and its ability to effectively fundraise for the zoo.

The county contracts with the HVZS to provide direct financial support, operate concessions and attractions like the carousel and train, to coordinate volunteers and to assist with educational programming, according to the release from HVZS.

In a letter from Dane County Executive Joe Parisi to the HVZS, Parisi raised concerns about the HVZS repurposing funds the public believes are going to the care of the zoo’s animals.

“If the Society’s intent was truly to support the zoo, dollars raised at the zoo and in the name of the zoo would go back to the zoo,” Parisi said in the release. “Instead, funds raised in recent years have gone to accounts inaccessible to the zoo, without the zoo’s knowledge.”

Parisi said the HVZS has more staff members than what the zoo utilizes to run the entire zoo, and paying those staff members competes against funding for zoo initiatives.

“You can imagine our surprise when we learned in your letter than you have 68 employees that work for the Society,” Parisi said. “The Society’s push to increase its own staff created artificial and inefficient demand for precious financial resources raised on zoo grounds.”

Parisi said the $6 million the HVZS has raised and an endowment fund that was established are inaccessible to the zoo.

“It’s unacceptable that public grounds are being utilized to raise dollars for a fund in which financial transactions are made without transparency,” Parisi said. “Over time, the Society has placed greater barriers to the zoo receiving dollars being raised in its name.”

Parisi also said the Association of Zoos and Aquariums said if the two parties signed the HVZS proposed agreement, accreditation would be lost this year since AZA accreditation requires that a support organization not exercise control over the operations of the zoo.

“We have been in negotiations with the County over the past year, working in good faith to develop a new operating agreement that would enable HVZS to continue its mission of supporting the zoo,” said Tom Hanson, president of the board of directors at HVZS. “Unfortunately, much to our disappointment, the County has recently put forth terms that we cannot agree to and that will significantly diminish the ability of the parties to continue under a highly successful public-private partnership.”

According to the release from the HVZS, the new contract proposed by the county included organizational and procedural changes that would have limited the scope and responsibilities of HVZS, including moving HVZS offices and staff off zoo grounds and turning over volunteer coordination and concession operations to the county. The proposed contract would also have reduced the role of HVZS in providing annual financial support for the zoo, officials said.

“The board of directors simply did not feel that the terms outlined by the county would have enabled HVZS to do its best work,” Dan O’Callaghan, legal representative for the HVZS, said in the release.

HVZS was founded in 1914 with the purpose of providing ongoing support to the zoo through financial, personnel and operational resources, officials said. The HVZS has worked to keep the zoo free and accessible to all guests.

The HVZS Board of Directors will remain in place to ensure a smooth transition at the conclusion of the current contract and to ensure that all existing funds raised by HVZS will be properly distributed toward zoo initiatives, according to the release. Those funds, including the endowment and operating reserve, add up to more than $6 million.

Parisi said if the new contract is not signed, the county is prepared to provide the funds necessary to ensure the transition minimizes interruptions to visitors at the zoo.

“When complete, those who come to see our free zoo and donate to it will be able to do so knowing with 100 percent certainty the dollars they’re giving to support the care and well-being of these animals will go to the animals,” Parisi said.

According to the letter, Dane County invests more than $1.7 million each year to run the Henry Vilas Zoo.

According to terms of the current contract, if a new contract is not signed by March 31, those remaining funds will be deposited into a trust account and any withdrawals from that account will require written approval by the county and HVZS.

HVZS board members have asked the county for a short-term extension to continue negotiations. It is unclear if that has been granted or denied.

We should also mention that WISC-TV has a joint marketing agreement with the Friends of the Henry Vilas Zoo which includes various things like sponsorship of zoo events and the weather camera that you see on the air.