Examining the Bond Issues III: The Zoo

Help the Animals…but wisely!

Question 6: Roger Williams Park Zoo Bonds
Approval of this question will allow for the State of Rhode Island to issue general obligation bonds, refunding bonds, and temporary notes in an amount not to exceed $11,000,000 for improvements to the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence.
Project Costs – $10,956,000 in principal w/ $8,147,880 in Interest (6% over 20 years) plus approximately $77,000 in issuance costs. TOTAL: $19,180,602. {Source PDF}.

Noting that the zoo is Rhode Island’s most visited attraction, the ProJo supports this bond, despite some questions regarding the zoo’s administrative apparatus.

Several years ago, the Providence parks superintendent, Nancy Derrig, retired after a controversy involving irregular administrative methods meant to insulate the park from a municipality that regarded the zoo’s admission fees as a convenient cash cow. Clearly, the zoo (and the park) are what they are now because Ms. Derrig took risks to protect them from city politics.
Today, this has changed. The city pays the Rhode Island Zoological Society to run the zoo, which no longer has much administrative contact with the city — or with its most logical alternative parent, the state. The arrangement seems a bit too unmoored from responsible authority for so important a civic institution.
…. The money’s disbursement would be administered by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which would funnel it through the city bidding process into contracts to carry out the zoo-expansion program designed by the Zoological Society.
In spite of the zoo’s unsettled administrative status, we support the bond issue, which would help fund its $35 million plan to upgrade existing exhibits, to create new ones and to boost its research facilities…
Approval of the bond issue would create momentum to give the zoo to the state, which can exert oversight and serve as a responsible parent for one of Rhode Island’s — and, indeed, southeastern New England’s — greatest treasures. So please vote yes on Question 6.

My family has a season pass to the zoo and visit frequently. It hasn’t been the same since the polar bears died, but renovation is underway and it is still an enjoyable experience. It also generates $13.5 million annually for the state. I’m not crazy about having the DEM administer the money by “funnelling” it through the “competitive” bidding process. Also, this bond is only a portion of the money required, according to The Rhode Island Zoological Society:

In addition to money from the $11-million bond issue, zoo officials hope to finance the project with $4 million already secured from a 2004 bond issue and $20 million in private donations.
Officials said $6 million in private donations has already been raised.

The RI Zoological Society believes these improvements are necessary to maintain the “bang for the buck” that the state gets from the zoo. However, it strikes me as more fiscally responsible to shore up the few leaks in the zoo–get more polar bears!–rather than embarking on a grand and expensive reimagining of the zoo. Use the already appropriated bond money and the private donations to deal with the top priorities. Save the wishlist–and the taxpayer dollars–for a more propitious time. If you want to help the zoo out, donate!

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