September 21, 2009
Matthew LaPlante

Hogle Zoo officials will tell the Salt Lake County Council this afternoon that the park has passed the threshold of private donations necessary to unlock a $33 million county bond approved by voters in November.

But the council — which wouldn’t let Hogle’s funding request go to a public vote until it agreed to raise the $11 million privately — may have some tough questions about the zoo’s accounting.

The zoo has yet to collect more than $4 million in pledges. And zoo officials told the county’s debt-review committee that at least some of the money wouldn’t be in the zoo’s coffers for another 10 years.

Tens of thousands of dollars of in-kind donations are included in the zoo’s accounting — with gifts such as computer memory sticks, software, a couch, puppets and a stuffed polar bear included as evidence of “matching funds.”

Hogle officials refused to respond to requests about their accounting methods, saying the zoo only had to answer to the council — which could authorize issuing the bond on a majority vote this afternoon.

“They’re the ones making the determination,” said zoo spokeswoman Holly Braithwaite, adding that it “wouldn’t be respectful” to the process if the zoo answered questions from the public — which would be on the hook for the $33 million bond — before the council has a chance to decide for itself.

“The public already voted on this,” she said. “We had 72 percent support.”

Braithwaite declined to comment on whether voters were fully informed that a large chunk of that $11 million had already been raised — and spent — on long-completed construction projects.

For instance, as evidence that it had met its matching-funds obligation, the zoo included $847,000 that was donated to help pay for an Asian Highlands exhibit. That project –it received funding from a separate bond approved in 2003 by Salt Lake City voters — was completed in 2006.

Councilman Joe Hatch, a former Hogle Zoo trustee, said he would be hesitant to sign off on the bond if the zoo was including in its figures monies that are years from being collected or those raised for already completed projects.

“I can’t imagine we would allow that,” he said. “At least, I hope not.”

And Mark Crockett, a former county councilman who helped orchestrate the compromise, said the zoo is “fudging it a bit.”

Crockett said the zoo had represented to the council that it had about $7 million on hand when it agreed to the deal, but he thought that was money in the bank and pledged specifically for future projects.

“I assumed — and I believe this was true for the rest of the council — that this was going to be new money for new projects,” Crockett said.

“If they already had $7 million, that’s terrific. But if they were to say that a some of that had already been spent long ago on another construction project, that wouldn’t have made any sense to me.”

The zoo had sent mixed signals about when it expected to meet the $11 million mark. It first had alerted the county’s debt-review committee that it was ready for a fundraising audit back in May. But as recently as the zoo’s Aug. 24 board of trustees meeting, Hogle Vice President Paul Dougan said that the effort was still $300,000 off the mark. Ten days later, Hogle officials were before the committee with a report showing $11.7 million in pledges and donations.

It now falls to the county council to decide whether Hogle’s numbers make sense — and it appears to have some flexibility in that decision.

The council didn’t set specific parameters on what could be considered part of the matching funds when it approved the ballot-measure language. It also didn’t give the debt-review committee instructions on what to do with the zoo’s report when it was presented on Sept. 3.

Committee members say that’s why they didn’t endorse or criticize the report when they passed it on to the council.

But for his part, County Auditor Jeff Hatch, who sits on the committee, said that the $4 million in pledges Hogle has yet to collect — including $1.3 million that is to come from just eight unidentified donors — “look solid.”

He acknowledged that he didn’t take a hard look at past fundraising, though.

“I guess there might be a question as to if some of those things didn’t relate to the specific project they were looking at funding,” he said. “It might not quite fit and those might be things that the council might question.”

But one tax watchdog said the council needs to do more than ask questions.

“This is Enron-style accounting,” said Royce Van Tassell, vice-president for the Utah Taxpayers Association. “I think the county council really has only one choice: They have to reject this. They have to say, ‘No, this is not what we agreed to last year.’ And they have to say, ‘When you’ve actually raised $11 million, come back and let’s do this’ — because this is not what the taxpayers signed off on.”