By Kevin Hall
Ten years ago, Community Alliance readers read the first and only warnings about Measure Z: $100 million in taxes slated to be controlled by a private corporation not subject to California’s open government laws, elimination of union jobs and the loss of Roeding Park.
The one-10th-cent sales tax is back on the ballot this November, and Fresno County voters are being asked to commit another $100 million. The campaign is on to again manipulate voters through $200,000 worth of sad-faced, blue-eyed elephants and more than $600,000 worth of campaign mailers, television and radio ads, and free publicity through local media pro-zoo puff pieces.
But voters are being asked to place their faith—and money—in a private corporation that actively resists oversight by members of the public. An examination of the limited public documents available reveals deep flaws with the business practices of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo Corporation and with the limited governmental role of its oversight agency, the Fresno County Zoo Authority.
The Authority is supposed to serve as the watchdog of Measure Z tax expenditures; its only elected official is the Fresno mayor. County supervisors insisted in 2004 when putting the measure on the ballot that the City of Fresno would have to take such an active role because, after all, it’s the city’s zoo, but since taking office in January 2009, Ashley Swearengin has missed nearly two-thirds of the Zoo Authority’s meetings, including a full year’s worth of meetings from late 2011 to late 2012.
The Authority’s other members are non-elected officials appointed by the county Board of Supervisors. The Authority decides when to reimburse the Fresno Chaffee Zoo Corporation for its expenses. The Zoo Corp. is the private nonprofit corporation that leases the city-owned facility. It chooses its own board members, and from behind closed doors it privately decides how to spend the taxpayers’ money.
Problems with the Zoo Corp. abound. For example, the new Sea Lion Cove exhibit completed in August 2012 was budgeted in 2007 at $5 million (in 2014 dollars); it came in at more than twice that cost at $10.5 million (2014 dollars). Apparently, the zoo folks were only testing the waters of government oversight to see if the Authority would raise any concerns. Such as, why doesn’t the Zoo Corp. demonstrate a public bidding process as any other organization spending millions in taxpayer dollars would? Or, hey, how come the $5.5 million cost overrun here is greater than the original budget? But not a word has been uttered by the Authority’s authorities. As one member said before the Fresno Planning Commission, “We don’t really decide. We just [put] the rubber stamp on it.”
Not surprisingly, the Zoo Corp. only grew bolder. Next up was the Africa Adventure. This is the major zoo expansion currently under construction across more than 20 acres of once pristine Roeding Park. Originally budgeted at $18.5 million in 2007 (2014 dollars), the current budget now pegs the cost at $55.9 million—a $37.4 million cost overrun. The final price tag—at last count—is more than triple the original budget.
As for the more than 20 former zoo employees—those city staffers with decent pay and benefits—their jobs were eliminated the day the zoo went private. But not so surprisingly, the private zoo now appears to be paying lavish salaries to someone. In 2006, the Zoo Corp. payroll was $2.2 million, but by 2014 it had more than doubled to $5.5 million.
How is that money being spent? Nobody knows but the guys behind the closed doors. When the Zoo Corp. submits receipts to the Zoo Authority for reimbursement, salaries are all lumped together on one line. They’re not required to show their books to anyone, including the Zoo Authority, which isn’t asking any questions.
So, while the livelihoods of public employees are attacked at every turn in Fresno, the Zoo Authority turns a blind eye to the skyrocketing payroll within the city’s former zoo. Is it mostly going to the people at the top? Again, the Zoo Corp. refuses to allow public review of its books and expenditures of taxpayers’ $100 million, and the Authority doesn’t ask.
The complete lack of transparency into the decision making that shapes this massive outlay of public monies prevents the very people funding this operation—everyone who pays sales tax in Fresno County—from judging the fiscal responsibility of the private corporation burning its way through $100 million in taxes and now back asking for another $100 million. No doubt another big bite of the park is anticipated, too, but it’s all being planned behind closed doors.
When challenged by taxpayer advocates demanding transparency in government spending, the Zoo Corp. simply points to its financial audits that it claims serve as proof it has been spending responsibly. Unfortunately, that’s known as the “Bell Defense,” named after the California town where taxpayers were defrauded of millions of dollars through lavish salaries paid to high-ranking city employees but whose audits all added up—to a lot of money. How much is the zoo director paid? That’s none of your business, just send money.
An audit merely confirms the expenditures; it doesn’t judge the amounts or process used. That’s supposed to be the Authority’s job. Any Fresno County resident can go online and see the salary schedule for every public employment position. From bookkeeper to the sheriff, it’s all there. From city garbage collector to the mayor, it’s the same. But not the zoo.
The Authority simply reimburses the Zoo Corp. whenever it submits a receipt. Nothing is ever challenged, no explanations sought, no real budget review at all. Yes, for construction projects, there is a long list of contractors, subcontractors and amounts paid, but the selection process remains completely hidden from the public.
Unlike every other major public building project, the Zoo Corp. is not required to use competitive bidding or to pay prevailing wage, despite the use of public money. Nor, unlike school bonds and the Measure C transportation sales tax, there is no expenditure plan published listing specific projects and costs.
The Zoo Corp. claims to be adhering to the “spirit” of the Brown Act, which calls for open government meetings and full disclosure of information, but in their meetings there are no supporting documents shared with the public and only cursory minutes of previous meetings available online. They don’t even vote on the contracts they’re awarding. They just listen to verbal reports from the zoo director and approve verbal financial reports. There is no paper trail visible to the public; nothing is posted online other than those cursory minutes and useless audits.
And don’t bother demanding it, as a private corporation the zoo claims it is not subject to the Public Records Act, and the Authority in its oversight role agrees completely.
And that’s just the way they like it: your money, their business. This is no way to run a taxpayer-funded enterprise, and it’s certainly no way to spend hundreds of millions in tax dollars.
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/chaffeezoofail.
Kevin Hall is a long-time community activist. He has led fights for clean air, fair transportation spending and smart growth. He has fought against Fresno’s daytime curfew ordinance, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attacks on unions and the original Measure Z.