Waco and McLennan County leaders have until next month if they want to call a $12.5 million bond election in May to expand Cameron Park Zoo, they learned at an intergovernmental relations committee meeting Monday at Waco City Hall.
County and city leaders appeared open to considering the countywide bond election that would add educational and animal treatment facilities and more exhibits.
But first, Assistant City Manager Bradley Ford said he and other staffers will dive into data on how such an expansion would impact operating costs, which the city of Waco underwrites. The city already spends $2.7 million annually to subsidize operations in addition to gate and concession revenue.
Though a record 353,691 people visited the zoo in 2018, an 8 percent increase from the previous year, “there appears to be a disconnect,” said District 5 Councilman Jim Holmes, a member of the committee. “Record attendance is not translating to record revenue.”
Ford, during an interview following the meeting, said he believes creating a larger zoo would prove “neutral to the subsidy,” in that it would create new employment positions but could also boost interest and ticket sales.
McLennan County Judge Scott Felton, while not explicitly endorsing a bond election, said he and county commissioners are in a mood to listen.
Ford noted that talks continue over increasing the city’s oversight of Cameron Park Zoo, as well as shifts in staffing and the leadership structure.
The Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society would handle fundraising, marketing, memberships, facility rentals and the pursuit of corporate sponsorship. The city, meanwhile, would oversee animal care, facility upkeep, grounds maintenance, the gift shop and educational efforts, according to Ford and a report from the botanical society. The proposal includes a shift from one director under the zoological society to a director employed by the city and an executive director overseeing the society. About 10 full-time-equivalent staff positions would be transferred from the society to the city.
Both the city and the society would communicate with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the city manager’s office would have a nonvoting member on the society’s executive committee and board, according to the plan. The Zoo Commission, inactive since 2008, would be reactivated as an advisory committee over zoo operations, with members from the city council, zoological society and McLennan County who would meet at least quarterly.
The plan comes in the wake of an accounting firm inquiry into cash-handling practices at the zoo and the departure of former director Jim Fleshman in April. Fleshman was asked to resign during the inquiry and faced a sexual harassment allegation from a former employee.
In other matters Monday, the joint committee heard a report from Prosper Waco executive director Matthew Polk on efforts to address local health, education and financial security issues. He said work continues among several agencies wanting to create a venue for treating those with mental health emergencies “without having to call the police.”
He said Prosper Waco, working with the Waco Independent School District, continues to pursue making child care and college more accessible to the poor. He also cited a study showing McLennan County has the eighth-highest concentration of incarcerated individuals among 254 counties in Texas.
“McLennan County is the most populous county in the top eight. The others are so small that a change involving one or two people would make a difference in the percentages,” Polk said. “We don’t mention this as being a problem or to point fingers. We do believe it merits discussion.”
He added, “We have much to do in 2019 to move the needle along. We have been asked by you our elected leaders to become more specific about our goals and in our feedback, and that’s what we are attempting to do.”
The committee also heard a report showing that 3,522 passengers used services provided by the McLennan County Rural Transit District in November, including 1,744 people living in rural areas and 340 served by Central Texas Senior Ministry. Ridership in the fledgling service is growing, said Allen Hunter, general manager of Waco Transit System.
He said Waco Transit is considering “shuffling” the schedules of employees to ensure maximum staffing when it receives the most inquiries about service. He said there have been complaints about 30-to-45-minute phone waits.
The committee heard from Ashley Nystrom, executive coordinator for the city of Waco, that Waco will join other communities in backing legislation to control the use of eight-liner gambling machines within the county limits. Felton said McLennan County is poised to join Waco in supporting the measure.
“We want our efforts to parallel those of the city’s,” Felton said.
“These devices are creating problems everywhere,” added Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver. “We hope the Legislature takes some action this session.”