Out of Control Policy Blog

Milwaukee County Exec Proposes Zoo Privatization

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is proposing to privatize the County zoo by turning over its operations to a nonprofit, possibly even the Milwaukee County Zoological Society:

Operation of the Milwaukee County Zoo, one of the area's most popular attractions, would be spun off to a nonprofit company under a plan by County Executive Scott Walker.

A proposal he'll include in his 2010 budget will call for creation of a steering committee to work out details of how the privatization would work, including whether the Milwaukee County Zoological Society or some newly created entity would take on zoo operations. Walker is eyeing a late 2011 date for the shift. [...]

Walker said he wasn't demanding that the 125 county employees at the zoo be privatized, but noted that's something he wants the steering committee to consider. The group would include Zoo Director Charles Wikenhauser, representatives of the zoological society and county officials.

The idea would be to save money, although Walker said that would be a long-range goal. Marketing for the zoo could be done more cheaply if it were centralized in a private entity rather than having the county and the zoological society run separate promotions, he said. Management costs also could be cut if the society took over operations, Walker said.

Privatizing also would allow the society to focus more of its fund raising on operating costs, in addition to collecting cash for new exhibits and facilities, the county executive said. The society reported $8.6 million in revenue for 2007, on its most recent nonprofit tax filing. [...]

He called the privatization move a major step, but one that would not be unusual among major zoos in the country. Half or more of the major zoos in the U.S. are now run by nonprofits, including the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and zoos in Dallas, Houston, San Diego and New York City, Wikenhauser said. He said private donations might increase if the county no longer ran the zoo. Some donors now are concerned that money given to the zoo could wind up subsidizing other county operations, he said. [...]

"This makes it possible to sustain support of the zoo for years to come," Walker said. His privatization idea comes in the midst of one of the most difficult budgets the county has faced in years. Without big changes in programs or tax support, the county faces a $78 million shortfall in 2010.

Dallas just recently did exactly what Walker's proposing with little, if any, real controversy (after all, how tweaked are people going to get by the idea of turning over a zoo to a nonprofit zoological society). But this is Milwaukee County, where no good government streamlining deed (or mere suggestion thereof) goes unpunished.

Walker's idea is likely to run into opposition with the County Board, said Supervisor Lynne De Bruin, whose district includes the zoo.

She said the only way to save money with the zoo would be through privatizing its employees, something a large majority of the County Board has resisted in other areas.

The unfortunate reality in Milwaukee County is that any idea that involves privatizing non-core government functions and enterprises—even in a fiscal crisis, no less—is a non-starter with most of the County Board. The same story has repeated itself several times over the last few years, most recently with discussions about privatizing a County call center and a potential long-term lease of General Mitchell airport.

Perhaps the zoo proposal offers a way out of this cycle though. It's hard to demagogue a proposal that involves potentially turning over the zoo to a nonprofit operation whose existence is built on supporting zoo operations. As I wrote a few weeks ago on the Dallas zoo privatization:

Having been a frequent visitor to the Houston Zoo for several years right after its transition to private hands, I can attest that its privatization arrangement certainly improved fundraising and capital investment and maintenance in both the asset and the surrounding park, generating a quite an improvement from its previous days as a public sector enterprise.

With the ongoing budget challenges that municipalities are facing these days, I suspect that we'll see growing interest in getting cities out of the zoo business. There's really nothing inherently governmental about running a zoo—Disney runs its Animal Kingdom and private interests own and/or operate zoos and wildlife parks of many shapes and sizes all throughout the country. Privatization is one policy option local leaders can turn to to ensure that zoos survive, and even thrive, during the current fiscal crunch.

» Reason Foundation's Annual Privatization Report 2009
» Reason Foundation's Privatization Research and Commentary

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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