City budget pinch squeezing Duluth zooby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Duluth continues to struggle with budget problems, and now the public housing for the polar bear, primates and other critters at the city zoo may be at risk. The City Council will decide soon whether to hand over Lake Superior Zoo operations to a non-profit organization. If the council rejects the idea, the 85-year-old zoo could be closed as soon as next month.
Duluth, Minn. — Wendy Wollund has been in the monkey business for 10 years.
"I take care of all the monkeys and all the animals that belong in the nocturnal building," Wollund said.
This month, Wollund is a city zoo keeper. In January, she could be doing something completely different for the city, or she could be out of a job altogether.
It's a hard end to Wollund's long relationship with dozens of animals like monkeys and wildcats, even though she's the one making the rounds with a shovel and cart, cleaning up the droppings before the zoo opens for the day.
"This was my love. I started as a volunteer here when I was going to college at UMD," Wollund said. "Everybody loves their job here, so there's very little turnover, because once you're here you just get hooked."
But, the mayor's office wants to unhook the zoo from the city's battered budget.
They want to hand the reigns over to the non-profit Lake Superior Zoological Society. The change would save Duluth almost $340,000 a year, and the Zoological Society can get charitable contributions the city can't. However, the plans would eliminate the jobs of 10 zoo workers like Wollund, all of them are city employees and members of the public labor union AFSCME.
"I don't know what's going to happen with me," Wollund said. "We're in the process of mediation. They don't want us here, for whatever reason."
You can see the effects of tight funding in the zoo's main building, where a small cafe looks out onto a concrete viewing deck, just above a big cat exhibit. But the concrete deck is crumbling, badly in need of repair, and much of it closed to the public.
Sitting in the cafe, Zoological Society Executive Director Sam Maida explains that under the current arrangement, the society handles the zoo's front office, ticket sales and promotion. The city pays for the staff that takes care of the animals. Under the new plan, the city would still own the zoo, but the society handles everything, including animal care. Given their expected revenue, Maida said the society can't afford the city's zoo keepers.
"We can't match the wages and benefits, obviously, and it's important for us to put together a proposal that we feel is going to be successful," Maida said. "In order for us to be successful we need to have all the people that work here work for us."
City Council members say they want time to study the plan, but Maida said the opportunity is now. The society has a team ready to take over, the society's board has signed on and they have $100,000 dollars pledged for the transition.
"If it gets dragged out, I can't guarantee those types of resources will be available into the future, which will make it much more difficult for us to step up and play the role that we've been asked to play," Maida said.
The office of Mayor Don Ness had handed the City Council their zoo management plan as a take-it-or-lose-it proposition. The mayor's chief administrative officer, Lisa Potswald, said the time has run out to tinker with the details.
"If we don't go with the Zoological Society contract, the zoo will close," Potswald said. "Those are the two options."
Duluth has struggled to balance this year's budget; laying off employees, and closing non-emergency city government altogether for four days late this year. Potswald said the zoo isn't vital.
"We have to focus on core services. We can no longer afford to do some of the other services that the city has done in the past," she said. "And certainly with the budget issues looming at the state, we have a lot more to be worried about."
Labor union officials have not signed off on the zoo plan. A statement from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees said the zoo handoff must be negotiated with AFSCME with no union jobs lost.
AFSCME recommends instead, a public/private partnership like the one at St. Paul's Como Zoo. That facility retains municipal zoo workers, but the zoo is still eligible for charitable donations.
However, the Duluth mayor's office is ready to push ahead without AFSCME's blessing, and it's drawn a line in the sand with the City Council.
Should the council reject the plan, the mayor's office is threatening to close the zoo and lay off the 10 AFSCME zoo workers.
Council members indicated last week they're not ready to decide, and will probably wait until early January.
- All Things Considered, 12/15/2008, 6:19 p.m.