One Salt Lake County Council member is questioning the use of nearly $2 million in taxpayer money to pay for capital projects at Hogle Zoo, especially when there has been so much talk of its possible relocation.
"I am personally worried that they are not using the funds appropriately under state law," County Council member Joe Hatch said.
Over the past five years, Hogle Zoo has received nearly $10 million from the Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts and Parks fund.
ZAP monies are generated from a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax approved by Salt Lake County voters in 1996 for the zoo, arts and parks and recreation.
The zoo's application for funding this year details that county ZAP funds will be used to complete payment of the $5.8 million guest entry plaza, including $1.3 million set aside for the gift shop.
"From a public-policy standpoint, it is a real concern that they are using taxpayer money to pay for these improvements, when, if some of the people at the zoo had their way, its current location will be abandoned in a few years," Hatch said. "My concern would dissipate dramatically if the zoo would come forward and say they have no intention of moving in the next 25 years."
The questioning over how the zoo spends county taxpayer money came up Tuesday, when Hatch called for a detailed examination of how the zoo spends those dollars.
"Are they directly or indirectly using this money for inappropriate uses? Are they subsidizing other areas that are inappropriate? That needs to be examined," Hatch said. The Legislative Audit Division is doing a separate review of the zoo's finances, with a report expected in December.
Stacey Phillips, the zoo's marketing and public relations manager, said Hatch is welcome to look at the zoo's records.
"The allocations of what we have spent have also been submitted to the state Legislative Audit Committee. We're very open to his questions."
On Tuesday, the County Council approved the ZAP contract that hands over nearly $2 million to the zoo, but Hatch still has questions.
He says state law, in addition to the county's own contract with the zoo, specifically requires the ZAP money go to operating expenses. If the county contract is broken, the county has a right to ask for a refund.
Hatch doesn't want to go that far.
"I do not want anything to hurt the zoo or the ZAP program because that program is one of the best things the county does, but I am concerned they are spending money for unauthorized uses."
Lynnette Hiskey, the county's ZAP program manager, said the money is being spent appropriately.
"Under the definition in the law the money can be used to support zoological facilities. It is clear to me in the statute that they can use that money for facilities."
Hatch said it was the intent of ZAP tax legislation that the money be spent on programs now, not stockpiled to pay for improvements down the road.
"The idea is to bring art and the zoo to the public now. That we are paying for the zoo today, the arts today. It is almost like a user fee," he said. "What we don't want is an arts organization or the zoo to use the fund to squirrel it away for some rainy day."
Hatch declared early on in Tuesday's meeting that part of what is driving his concern over the zoo's spending practices is his desire to keep the zoo at its current location.Comment on this story
"I am adamantly opposed to its moving. I think it is in the perfect spot." Because the zoo is landlocked and running out of room, there has been talk of relocating it to another part of the county. One favored site is Wheeler Farm.
Hatch said he also wants more answers from an institution that receives so many public dollars. "They are getting so much government funding but not being very open with their books. It's particularly interesting when they have revenue that is 20 percent over their expenses and I have heard that, prior to the ZAP tax, they were living hand to mouth."
Hatch wants to know why that money is going to capital improvement projects."I want to hear from county officials, the zoo and my colleagues on the council."