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Vilas Zoo society funds to go into trust after contract expires, Dane County says

March 26, 2019

The Henry Vilas Zoological Society’s funds, including cash reserves, will be placed into a trust fund when its contract with Dane County expires Sunday following a breakdown in negotiations, county officials said.

The county has maintained that the society has stashed too much money — in excess of $6 million, much of that in endowment and reserve funds — that county zoo staff can’t access, and should be spent on the zoo. It has also raised concerns about accreditation requirements and excessive staffing costs.

The county’s contract with the nonprofit, which has supported the Vilas Zoo on Madison’s Near West Side since 1914, requires that the money the society has raised be put into a trust fund when the contract expires.

The fund would be co-managed by the county and the society and would be used to pay for operations of the admission-free zoo. The county said the fund also would be used to pay for severance packages of society employees.

“The current agreement calls for establishment of the trust but it will take the Society’s cooperation to implement and administer that,” said Josh Wescott, chief of staff for County Executive Joe Parisi. “The existing agreement says the County and Society have to agree on disbursements.”

The trust fund was discussed during transition negotiations last week, society and county officials said Sunday, with both sides saying the talks have been productive.

Establishing a trust fund would mean that at least the society’s board would likely remain in place to help oversee the money, said Amy Supple, vice chairwoman of the society’s board.

While Westcott said the society’s $1.5 million endowment would likely be treated separately from the trust, Supple said the endowment would be included in the trust.

The society currently operates all of the zoo’s concessions, carousel and train ride, and has also managed fundraisers for the zoo.

The society will have to vacate the zoo Sunday when its contract expires, potentially ending its more than 100-year relationship with the admission-free zoo.

Over the past 10 years, the society has donated about $17 million to the zoo for operations, programs and improvements, including $4.6 million for the award-winning Arctic Passage exhibit.

Operations at the zoo will continue as normal when the contract expires, Parisi has said.

The Dane County Board will decide on two zoo-related resolutions in the coming month. One would approve a deal with a concessions contractor, and the other would approve money to pay the salaries of an additional nine zoo employees for about $620,000. That money would pay the salaries of three zoo staff members the society had previously paid for and allow the county to hire workers to do the jobs that society staff members previously did.

The county also will hire a consultant to advise it in the transition and on effective partnerships between zoos and supporting organizations before seeking applications for a new fundraising partner.

Supple said the society is a proven fundraising organization and had proposed to continue to raise money for the zoo after trying to compromise by addressing the county’s concerns. The proposal was denied, she said.

“We don’t understand why the county is unwilling to accept that proposal,” she said.

“Given some of the issues uncovered in the past several weeks, it’s important a structure be put in place to ensure the best cooperative relationship possible between the zoo and any future support organization,” the county said in a news release Sunday. “The next time the county will review a proposal from the Society will be after this consultant’s work is complete and a report has been issued.”

Supple said the society will release more information about fundraising operations on Monday.

She said she’s unsure if the society will apply to be the zoo’s fundraising partner after the consulting process.

“There’s a lot of open questions, she said, adding that it’s “unfortunate” that the zoo will head into the spring and summer season without a dedicated fundraising organization.