LA Zoo faces privatization due to lack of city funds

A pair of rare snow leopard cubs play at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
A pair of rare snow leopard cubs play at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. David McNew/Getty Images

A City Council committee voted today to consider removing direct management of the Los Angeles Zoo from the city and placing it in the hands of a private company or nonprofit entity.

The Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee voted 3-0 to issue a request for management proposals from private groups, though about a dozen zoo employees and union workers asked the panel not to take that step.

The panel also approved a last-minute motion by Councilman Herb Wesson asking Santana and Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller to study alternatives for raising revenue while keeping the zoo under city management. Wesson said that might include charging for parking in the zoo lot, which is currently free to use.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed more than two years ago that the city take a look at privatizing the zoo's management.

City officials say the rising cost of pensions and steep pay raises scheduled over the next few years for some zoo employees mean the Zoo Department requires more city funding at a time when the city has less money to dole out.

Villaraigosa's 2011-12 budget cut the city's general fund contribution to the zoo by 20 percent, down to $4.8 million, but maintained an $8 million additional subsidy that also comes out of city's general fund, which pays for police, fire and other basic services.

Officials say ticket and concessions revenue, totaling about $11.5 million, will cover a smaller and smaller portion of the zoo's operating cost, unless prices go up.

Under a so-called alternative management structure, the city would retain ownership of the zoo, and none of the zoo's 228 full-time workers would be laid off. Employees who do zoo-specific work would keep their current jobs. Plumbers, carpenters, gardeners and other non-zoo specific employees, however, could be transferred into other city departments.

All new hires at the zoo would work for the new private manager.

"All the zoos who transition into this kind of model, their revenues skyrocket,'' said City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, who will oversee the process. "It's much easier for a private individual or foundation to give money to an organization that's under a non-governmental management structure than it is to give government money.''

The unfortunate alternative, Santana said, is dramatically raising admission prices or closing down the zoo altogether.

"The mayor has asked us to look at this. So we're fulfilling that request,'' said Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes the zoo. "I'd love to see it have a dedicated revenue stream of public dollars to enhance the experience at the zoo. I know that's very difficult right now.''

LaBonge said donors are less likely to support a city-managed zoo, because too much of their money goes toward administrative costs and not enough to zoo improvements and programs.

Zoo employees say they fear ticket prices would spike, and the animals would suffer. under a private manager. They say zoo employees are dedicated to their positions and new hires would lack institutional knowledge about how to care for the zoo grounds and the animals.

"We all play a big role,'' said Adriana Hawkins, a gardener caretaker at the zoo.``We're going to have problems, guaranteed. We know that zoo inside and out.''

Hawkins said she chose the zoo over 13 other city departments and higher salary offers, "so I won't be very happy if they just now want to move me to another department.''

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