September 22, 2009
Matthew LaPlante

A $2.5 million contribution — which lifted Hogle Zoo over a fundraising threshold to access tens of millions in public cash — came from the zoo’s recently hired concessionaire.

In spite of some members’ questions about whether the donation was part of a “pay-to-play” deal, the Salt Lake County Council appears poised to approve the issuance of a $33 million bond to help pay for improvements at the private zoo.

On the request of Councilman Jeff Allen, who asked for a legal review of the $11 million Hogle officials say they’ve raised, the council tabled a vote on whether to issue the bond until its next meeting. The zoo was required to raise the funds as a condition of unlocking the money approved by voters in November.

The delay in voting drew criticism from several members of the council who had supported putting the bond measure on the ballot without the $11 million hurdle. Several pushed for an immediate vote, indicating they were not greatly concerned about the zoo’s bookkeeping — which included millions in funds that were raised and spent years before the bond issue came before voters, and millions more that won’t be collected for years to come.

The concessionaire’s donation, for instance, will come over a period of 10 years. That led some to ask whether a $2.5 million pledge that won’t be collected in full for years should be given the same weight as a $2.5 million check in hand.

And the timing of the donation — one of the largest gifts in the zoo’s history, and announced just one month after the Denver-based Service Systems Associates was given a contract for providing concessions at the zoo — led Councilman Michael Jensen to question whether the donation was part of a “pay-to-play” deal.

Zoo director Craig Dinsmore denied that was the case.

Rather, he said, the company, which serves a number of animal parks, simply shares a mutual interest with Hogle in making the Utah zoo a better place. “The better the zoos and aquariums,” he said, “the better the opportunity they have to make money.”

Regardless of intent, quipped Council Chairman Joe Hatch, a former member of the zoo’s board of trustees, “there was no requirement in the bond language that all pledges must be pure of heart.”

That rubbed taxpayer advocate Royce Van Tassell the wrong way. The Utah Taxpayer Association vice president said that the deal was “fishy.”

“The taxpayers association loves to see privatization efforts, but this clearly raises some questions,” he said.

Van Tassell also continued to question whether Hogle Zoo should be permitted to count money that had been raised and spent on long-completed construction projects. Among the line items on the zoo’s matching fund report to the county was $847,000 that was specifically donated to help fund an Asian Highlands exhibit — a project that was completed in 2006.

But Councilman Max Burdick indicated that he believes the zoo’s accounting was in keeping with the expectations of voters, who gave the $11 million-for-$33 million deal 72 percent support in November’s election. He said he asked the county’s legal advisers whether “we met the intent of the voters when they made their vote and met the legislative intent of the council.”

“What I’ve heard back is we probably have.”

What’s next?

On Sept. 29, the Salt Lake County Council will again weigh whether to issue a $33 million bond for improvements at Hogle Zoo.