Supervisor: Spending $100K on new zoo lights ‘waste of taxpayer money’

Job fair connects teens with summer jobs at Henry Vilas Zoo

While Henry Vilas Zoo officials say $100,000 in public money for a solar-lighting system is a matter of public safety, critics call the Dane County Board of Supervisors’ spending move a misuse of county taxpayer dollars.

Deputy Zoo Director Jeff Halter insists the 20 solar-powered lights currently marked for installation are about keeping their visitors, staff and animals safe as they change their business model to include more night events.

“The heart of the matter is the zoo is a very dark place at night. And so it’s a safety issue. It’s not a matter of whether we need lights. It’s a matter of how do we get them to our property,” Halter said. “So we want to make sure we give our guards a chance to keep our animals safe. And then when we do have an event at night we want to make sure kids aren’t tripping, the parents aren’t tripping. And they can find their way around our park.”

Dane County Supervisor Dave de Felice, who was one of the six board members who voted against the move Oct. 1, said spending six figures from a savings account meant to reduce pollution, when the zoo has held less than 20 night events this year, is a waste of taxpayer money.

“They’ve only had 17 special events all year. And to spend $100,000 for 17 special events, I remain unconvinced that’s necessary,” de Felice said. “You’re creating a need. And then after saying after you provide that need, you’ll save money, which makes no sense at all. Because it’s spending money rather than spending no money.”

De Felice also wonders why much cheaper $35-$275 hardware store security lights were not considered, instead of buying the $5,000 a piece solar lights.

Halter said the zoo’s cost analysis, including labor costs, showed buying 20 traditional lights would actually cost $160,000, and say their solar lights meet the mission of reducing energy use.