In nature, endangered animals fight for their lives against threats like poachers and predators. In government-run zoos, they face a threat of a different kind: budget woes. This problem has only gotten worse with local governments facing harsh budget realities across the U.S. in the years following the Great Recession. Meanwhile zoos like the ABQ BioPark Zoo remain far below competing budget priorities on the government food chain such as public safety and public works. Nationally, public-private partnerships (PPPs) have emerged as the preferred alternative to bare bones operations, and should be considered as a streamlining tool for Albuquerque as well.
Government-run zoos have a lot to lose in economic downturns. According to CNNMoney, government funding constitutes an average of 40 percent of public zoo budgets. Budget cuts are forcing zoos to make up for funding shortfalls by laying off workers, cutting education programs, reducing operating hours, deferring maintenance and raising ticket prices. Emergency measures like this tend to detract from core zoo functions such as educating the public, encouraging environmental awareness and promoting biodiversity.
For the ABQ BioPark Zoo, ticket prices have been a subject of ongoing debate between Mayor Richard Berry’s administration and the City Council after Mayor Berry raised fees from $7 to $10 last summer. Two weeks ago the City Council voted to lower fees to $9. Meanwhile Albuquerque’s chief operations officer John Soladay recently explained the zoo has $18 million in deferred maintenance, according to the Albuquerque Business Journal.
PPPs offer a tool to address budget woes for both zoos and governments in situations like this because they can eliminate or significantly reduce the amount of taxpayer money going to zoos and increase private support by transforming fundraising and zoo operations.
Under a PPP the government seeks a private partner, typically a nonprofit, to assume day-to-day operations and maintenance of the zoo (taking it out of the government food chain.) This promotes better or similar service while eliminating or reducing taxpayer support. PPPs depoliticize zoos and allow them to run like other mission-driven public amenities such as museums, while maintaining public oversight and ownership. Non-profit zoo advocacy groups, like the New Mexico BioPark Society, are often logical partners because they’re already fulfilling current duties such as fundraising, coordinating volunteer efforts, organizing special events and providing educational programming at the zoo.
PPPs can transform fundraising by replacing uncertain public subsidy with committed private support. Privately run zoos generally receive a higher dollar value in charitable donations than government-run zoos because donors are more confident their funding will go to its intended source. After Dallas signed a PPP for its zoo in 2009, the nonprofit operator (the Dallas Zoological Society) persuaded four donors to pledge $2.25 million to revamp the facilities.
The growth of zoo PPPs over time demonstrates how powerful of a policy tool it really is. In 1991 only 40 percent of the accredited zoos in the U.S. were privately operated. The proportion of privately run zoos has since increased to approximately 75 percent of all accredited zoos and aquariums. This includes major city zoos in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Phoenix, Houston, Seattle and elsewhere.
Tulsa, Oklahoma recently successfully implemented a PPP with the newly created non-profit, Tulsa Zoo Management, Inc. (TZMI), which was highlighted in Reason Foundation’s latest Annual Privatization Report. Facing $10 million in budget cuts that had to be decided upon within 45 days, and with 70.3 percent of polled citizens supporting public-private partnerships of parks and recreation, Tulsa privatized the 78-acre complex. TZMI successfully took over funding and management raising $1 million for delayed capital improvements, and cut city funding of the operating budget by nearly 60 percent. TZMI also plans to replace 12 positions that were lost in 2010 due to budget cuts, and additionally to hire another 14 positions.
Skeptics of PPPs fairly fear that the focus of the zoo may turn from education to entertainment, transforming the zoo into an amusement park. However, elected officials sign and oversee PPP contracts in which they can (and normally do) include language restricting how private partners can operate the zoo and how much they can charge. Additionally, zoo-goers expect a natural environment; so maintaining that aesthetic is essential for any new operators’ success. Many public-turned-private zoos have seen high success rates, as well as those that were traditionally private. For example the Philadelphia zoo, the oldest zoo in U.S. history, has been privately operated by the Philadelphia Zoological Society since 1859.
The benefits of a PPP could potentially outweigh the cost of maintaining the status quo. Three out of four accredited zoos and aquariums are now privately operated in the U.S., and the ABQ BioPark Zoo should consider joining their ranks. A well-structured PPP would focus scarce taxpayer dollars to fund essential city services and in the long run will leave the zoo, and the citizens of Albuquerque, better off.
Katie Furtick and Harris Kenny are policy analysts at Reason Foundation (reason.org), a Los Angeles-based think tank.