It's a Jungle in Here!

The Zoological Society says Metrozoo makes fundraising impossible. Metrozoo says the Zoological Society doesn't know from fundraising.

After a turbulent 1997, the public and private entities that run troubled Metrozoo seem to be taking the first tentative steps toward peace. Though they have not yet embraced warmly, the county staff of Metrozoo and the nonprofit Zoological Society of Florida have at least relaxed their grip on each other's throats.

The peacemaker is Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, who has chaired a series of sit-downs between zoo and society leadership. The goal: Come up with a clear definition of the roles of the public and private staffs, and codify those roles in a formal agreement.

Metrozoo's plight is severe. Despite having repaired the worst depredations of Hurricane Andrew, the zoo has been unable to bring attendance back to prehurricane levels. The 459,000 visitors between October 1996 and September 1997 is the lowest number in any fiscal year other than the one immediately after Andrew. Of the zoo's $7.2 million budget in 1996-97, $4.4 million came from county subsidies -- the largest amount the county has spent in this decade to prop up the attraction.

Citing the zoo's financial woes, the Zoological Society in September proposed to take over operations completely, a gambit that provoked yet another round of name-calling and finger-pointing but which ultimately had the effect of bringing both sides to a negotiating table headed by Penelas.

In the course of those discussions, the society provided the mayor and county zoo administrators with a breakdown of its fundraising revenues and expenses. Those figures, from fiscal year 1997, have raised some eyebrows among county staffers and their allies. The portion of all money raised by the society that was earmarked for the zoo seems low -- 42 percent. "These numbers stink," snaps Ron Magill, zoo communications director and a vocal critic of the society. "I don't think society members are aware that only 42 cents of their dollar is coming to the zoo." (As of May 1997, 14,000 South Florida households held society memberships, which cost $45 per family per year.)

The Zoological Society argues that the figures don't reflect the totality of what the organization raises and builds for the zoo -- and that an uncooperative county zoo staff has made it difficult for the society to raise money. In its initial takeover proposition, society officials blamed bureaucratic inertia on the county side for sagging attendance and revenues. But others say the fundraising numbers revealed by the society in November illustrate that the group hasn't been a paragon of financial responsibility either. According to its unaudited summary of the fiscal year that ended in September 1997, the society raised $3,449,000.

After fundraising expenses of $1,450,000 and management costs of $542,000, the society was left with $1,457,000 for the zoo, or 42 percent of gross revenue. That percentage falls well below accepted norms for nonprofits. A spokesman for the National Charities Information Bureau, which monitors more than 300 nationwide charitable organizations, says that, to meet its minimum performance standards, a nonprofit must spend no less than 60 percent of each dollar raised on programs.

Magill, a county employee, allows that some sort of privatization scheme will, in the long run, probably be best for the zoo -- but not at the percentage shown in the society's summary. "I'm not trying to say that the county alone would be absolutely the finest thing for the zoo," he explains, "but when I look at these numbers, I don't want to jump out of the pot and into the fire."

Though the society has called the numbers part of an "internal working document," the figures have been circulating around county hall. Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, a long-time zoo booster and Zoological Society critic, used the summary document as the basis for a December 11 memorandum to the mayor and commissioners questioning the society's fitness for assuming total control of the zoo.

Society officials are incensed that their finances are being discussed at all outside the framework of negotiations with the county. They don't dispute the accuracy of the numbers, just their completeness. Society president-elect Edward Soto says they illustrate only cash flow and don't include many other forms of support for the zoo. "They've come up with some nice long division -- not even long division, it's just this jimmied math thing," Soto says disdainfully of zoo staff. "It doesn't reflect what the Zoological Society does for the zoo."

For example, society executive director Glenn Ekey estimates that some $820,000 (which doesn't show up on the summary document) has been raised over the years but has yet to be spent on specified projects. In-kind contributions, which amounted to some $109,000 in fiscal year 1997, don't show up. Nor does revenue from endowments, interest from which currently totals $432,000. Nor does the value of the 33,200 hours of work done for the zoo by the society's volunteers, which a recent study by accounting firm Arthur Andersen valued at $8.19 per hour. Also, Ekey says, the zoo raised $188,000 in restricted funds in fiscal 1997 -- money that didn't show up on the summary.

Ekey believes that bringing up issues like the society's fundraising efficiency in the middle of negotiations is an attempt by the county side to gain bargaining leverage through media pressure. "If you look at these numbers alone, you force us to start to drag up issues and problems from the past," Ekey says. "I think it's counterproductive. It just continues to undermine the process."

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