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Monkey Business at the Zoo

Posted by Chris Liebenthal on April 30, 2010

From Milwaukee County First:

Here we go again.

Lisa Kaiser of the Shepherd Express had a column in last week’s issue regarding a study to possibly privatize the zoo.  It’s sounds like a typical stunt by Scott Walker.

First though, a snippet from the article shows that the zoo is in trouble due to Walker’s budgeting stunts:

But the county’s ongoing budget crisis is having a tangible impact on the Milwaukee County-owned and -operated zoo. Back in 2008, $6.4 million in county tax levy went to zoo operations; in 2010, tax support has dwindled to $3.8 million.

That reduction in support leaves the zoo in a bind. For example, even though the zoo is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week operation that employs highly specialized zookeepers, a hefty portion of its employees is subject to the county’s 22 furlough days this year. That makes adequate staffing a challenge.

The zoo is in financial trouble, like every other part of the county.  But privatization does not seem like a viable solution and will due nothing to help the zoo and actually will cause harm to the tax payer:

De Bruin’s letter states that one privatization model being studied by Biddle doesn’t have a lot of upside for the county.

According to this option, the county would still provide $6.5 million annually for operations; absorb $1.4 million in annual county costs; pay roughly $1 million to $1.5 million in debt obligations annually; and maintain responsibility for all employee legacy costs.

In addition, the nonprofit entity would have to raise $1 million more than the ZSM currently does.

“Under this model, the county gives up operational control but keeps its current obligations plus the most expensive components of future employee cost obligations,” De Bruin wrote.

Her letter concluded: “If the county is going to be asked to continue this level of financial commitment, and potentially more if problems occur, my expectation is that the County Board would want to continue public operations.”

Wikenhauser, however, said that control of the zoo would be negotiated further down the road and that asking county taxpayers to continue funding the zoo is to be expected.

“In most of the zoos that have gone through this process, this change, there’s still a subsidy from the local government agency,” Wikenhauser said.

Did you catch that?  The County would still be on the hook for more than $10 million a year to support the zoo, but would give up all say in how it’s run.  That reminds me a lot of the deal with that the County made with the Milwaukee County Museum, which the County has had to bail out a number of times since it went into private management.

Towards the end of Kaiser’s article, we see another sign that this whole study is a set up (emphasis mine):

Sources report that Biddle has interviewed zoo managers and ZSM staffers. But De Bruin, in her April 8 letter, admonishes Biddle for not meeting with front-line zoo employees.

“The idea that front-line employees might not be interviewed is so different from how the county has worked in past planning situations that my County Board colleagues would be shocked to learn this has not occurred,” De Bruin wrote. “To prevent this from becoming controversial, I’m asking for interviews of some front-line staff before any ‘draft’ final report is presented to the Steering Committee” [emphasis in the original].

Biddle was scheduled this week to interview three front-line, union-represented zoo employees selected by managers, and a draft report will be submitted later.

Why are the workers being picked out by management?  At the very least, they should be picked at random, if not picked by the union, whose views would otherwise not be interjected into the whole study.  Walker has gotten the county tax payers into enough jams by his arrogance and not working with the unions, leading to expensive lawsuits and the costs that have to paid out when the county loses.

In summary, it looks like Walker has manipulated the situation to the point where the zoo will either have to cut back on some of the services it offers or the tax payers will have to share a heavy load as Walker gets to privatize it.  Neither option sounds very appealing.

But it should be noted that this is standard modus operandi for Walker.

Time and time again, in departments all across the county, we have seen Walker continuously cut and cut at a department or program until it cannot function the way it is supposed to and ultimately fails.

Then Walker argues that it is failing and that it would be better to privatize it.  Usually when this happens, it backfires on Walker, on the tax payer or both.

We saw it when Walker privatized the security at the Behavioral Health Division which is now costing more than a half million dollars more each year.

We saw it again when Walker tried to cut the life out of the call center at Income Maintenance.  But instead of getting to privatize it like he wanted, the State of Wisconsin had to take it over and get it operational again.  That stunt is costing tax payers millions of dollars each year.

We have also seen this pattern in the parks, in transit, the housekeeping and security fiascoes at the courthouse, and everywhere else.  Sadly, with his singular vision on the campaign, the upcoming budget is shaping to be the worst one yet.

This cannot be allowed to happen, for all of our sakes.  This is not good leadership, this is just Walker once again putting his political interests before the good of the County.


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