ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The city has promised hundreds of millions of dollars in new construction at the Rio Grande Zoo and the rest of the Albuquerque BioPark, thanks to a new tax voters passed last year.
However, KRQE News 13 has obtained new information that shows a big chunk of the new BioPark tax money won’t be used to build anything, but will actually be used to pay for some pricey new employees.
In all, the city is planning to hire for four new positions at the BioPark to handle new work related to the tax-funded expansion of the four-tiered attraction that includes the zoo, aquarium, botanic garden and Tingley Beach.
The new hires are expected to cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in salaries alone, but they’re positions that the office of Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry is defending.
The New BioPark Tax
In October 2015, Albuquerque voters passed an eighth (1/8) cent gross receipt tax to help fund improvements at the BioPark for the next 15 years. The tax will begin collecting revenue for the BioPark on July 1, 2016. The city estimates it should generate about $16 million dollars a year for the next 15 years.
A total of around $250 million dollars is expected to be generated by the tax. The money will be spent on improvements at the zoo, aquarium, botanic garden and Tingley Beach that were outlined in the city’s recent “ABQ BioPark Master Plan,” or what many consider to be a roadmap for the future of the facilities over the next 20 years.
The BioPark’s non-profit fundraising arm the “New Mexico BioPark Society” was the driving force for getting the measure on the ballot and passed.
“I mean its huge, it’s absolutely huge,” said Julie Miller Rugg, executive director of the New Mexico BioPark Society.
The BioPark has an annual operational budget of around $14 million dollars. Supporters of the new tax say the new revenue stream will finally allow the facility to get much needed improvements.
“Let’s face it, it’s about time, you know? The zoo is old and definitely needs some updates and improvements,” said Miller Rugg.
Old buildings, like the “Tropical America” exhibit will soon by demolished and replaced with new ones, like the long-planned penguin exhibit.
However, what many may not know is just how much money won’t be spent on building, but rather on newly created salaries.
“How do we make sure that those funds are protected?” said Miller Rugg of the BioPark Society’s thoughts on some of the new salary.
The city has now created a plan to hire additional employees with the goal of making sure the BioPark’s new tax revenue is not squandered.
“We have to ensure that there’s both accountability and efficiency in managing those dollars,” said Gilbert Montaño, Chief of Staff for Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.
In the coming weeks, the city is expected to add four new positions to the BioPark’s payroll. Those positions include a project coordinator, an assistant project coordinator, a project manager and a new boss called the “BioPark Chief Executive.”
The four new administrative positions will make a combined salary of roughly $309,000 dollars annually. It’s an expense that the Mayor’s Office defends.
“This won’t be general fund, this won’t be special revenue fund,” said Montaño. “(The money for the salaries) could not be used for anything else in this city, we couldn’t pay for raises for employees, we couldn’t pay for food for the animals.”
The new eighth-cent BioPark GRT will pay for most of the city’s payroll additions, but some of it will come from private funding.
The use of GRT funding to pay for most of the salary for the new positions may come as a surprise to some voters. According to the BioPark tax’s ballot language, revenue for the tax is said to be for, “the capital needs, including design, construction, acquisition, improvement, renovation, rehabilitation, and equipping or furnishing of the ABQ BioPark in accord with the city’s ABQ BioPark Master Plan.”
Accordnig to the Mayor’s Office, the city is legally allowed to hire positions to manage the use of the BioPark GRT revenue, because the positions are directly related to the BioPark’s “capital needs.” However, the positions the city is now hiring were never clearly outlined or discussed with voters.
So how does the city explain the new BioPark jobs? The Mayor’s Office says the BioPark needs more people to oversee expensive, new projects.
“The last thing you’d want to do is have a significant amount of dollars coming in … and then really not have the guidelines and the blueprints and the management abilities to be able to function,” said Montaño.
The city is also spending other money to make sure the BioPark gets the right employees. They spent $35,000 to hire a headhunting firm, “Ralph Andersen & Associates,” to help find and vet applicants for the new BioPark Chief Executive position. The Mayor’s Office says that money came from the zoo’s “special revenue fund,” which consists of revenues made by the zoo through private event rental fees.
“They really dive deeper than the level our HR department would typically look,” said Montaño on the decision to hire the search firm.
The “BioPark Chief Executive”
The so-called “Chief Executive” for the BioPark is expected to make up to $150,000 a year. Up to $90,000 of that will come from BioPark tax revenue, while up to $60,000 a year will come from private donations to the New Mexico BioPark Society.
“We need this position,” said Miller Rugg. “I’ve said for years we need to bring back another director level.”
The NM BioPark Socity says it chose to contribute funding to the position as a way to protect their work in getting the BioPark GRT funding passed. The Society has agreed to fund the position for at least three years.
“From our end, putting out $50 to 60-thousand dollars annually for 3 years, in order to protect our $250 million seems like a pretty good deal, it makes sense to us,” said Miller Rugg. “This isn’t something we looked at lightly.”
The city is expected to hire the BioPark Chief Executive by July 2016. The job will begin on a three year contract with an option for renewal after that. At $150,000 a year, the BioPark Chief Executive will be the third highest paid city employee. Only Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry and Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden make more than $150,000 a year.
The Mayor’s Office hopes the new “Chief” will take care of long-term planning and overall operations. The current BioPark Director, Rick Janser is expected to stay in the same position with the city. The city hopes Janser will be able to focus on more day-to-day operations like employee matters and animal care.
While no one is asking for the BioPark to turn away the expected $250 million dollars in new tax revenue, there are some indications that the BioPark has serious day-to-day operational deficiencies that the city may be struggling to fund.
Federal regulators and national zoo and aquarium experts recently pointed to low staffing levels at the zoo that have caused major concerns related to maintenance, safety and threats to animal well-being.
Since January 2014, inspectors with the USDA have cited the zoo on five different occasions. Many of the problems have been related to animal containment facilities. In several of the cases, USDA inspectors blamed a lack of staff and an inability to respond to a maintenance backlog.
In July 2015, inspectors noticed rusted metal-clad doors on the warthog enclosure that could “potentially injure” the Red River Hog. The work order to fix those doors was back dated to May 2014. According to inspectors, the reason why the work remained incomplete for more than a year was due to “insufficient staffing.”
Other citations pepper the BioPark’s federal inspections. In April 2015, temporary employees were found to be out of compliance in their knowledge of water quality in the polar bear enclosure. In February 2015, a siamang gibbon ape escaped his enclosure and killed a nearby lemur. In September 2014, peeling paint was found in the zebras holding pens that could “potentially be ingested.” In January 2014, broken fiberglass and crumbling cement was found chipping off of the “marine mammal” exhibit, along with a leaky water pipe near the takin (goat-antelope) exhibit.
The city’s latest zoo and aquarium accreditation review by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) also raised several “major concerns.”. While the city passed the test, the AZA had several comments related to “low staffing levels,” saying, in general, that low staff made it “difficult for the institution (zoo & aquarium) to achieve its goals and objectives.”
“You can’t have a lot of these endangered species if you’re not accredited, you can’t get them from other facilities,” said Miller Rugg. “If we’re not accredited, we would no longer have a huge portion of the animals we have here.”
Among AZA’s major concerns: animal enrichment has been “compromised” due to low staffing levels; a “significant reduction” in permanent positions and use of “minimally experience” temporary employees “compromises human and animal safety”; and “sufficient staff” are not available to “adequately carry out maintenance.”
The city says it has made some improvements since the accreditation, including fixes to several maintenance related issues. However, that response from April 2016 contains no information about any changes to staffing levels.
When asked about low staffing levels cited by the AZA, the Mayor’s Office responded, saying, “that’s assuming that we agree with their opinion on staffing levels.”
“That’s why it makes it even more important to hire this Chief Executive, is that we need someone who brings the leadership ability that can manage through times described by you,” said Montaño.
The BioPark’s overall staffing levels are still of concern to the BioPark Society.
“There are 40, I think even more, but at least 40 less positions here than there was even five years ago, and we have more animals and more acreage, so obviously we have a shortage issue,” said Miller Rugg.
While the city is planning to add more acreage to its facilities, there are no immediate plans to hire more operational staff. The city maintains that the new BioPark Chief Executive can help with staffing issues.
“We need someone that can develop efficiencies, we need someone that can develop management structures,” said Montaño.
While the BioPark is set for a building boom, any changes to day-to-day operations are still just a thought. For now, the city is planning for current employees to shoulder the extra load that enhanced facilities are likely to bring.
“The public trusted us to vote yes on this tax increase for their BioPark,” said Montaño. “We want to respect that and do everything we can to provide that service back to them.”