JACKSON The Jackson Zoo's future is the latest victim of Murphy's Law: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. And in the last week, it has.
Take last Thursday for instance. On Aug 2, the executive committee of the Jackson Zoological Society's Board of Directors issued a vote of no-confidence in Executive Director Beth Poff, placing her on administrative leave. That afternoon, the board president, Jeffrey Graves, went before the Jackson City Council at a special meeting to ask for a bailout—the zoo had run out of operational funds and needed cash to make payroll the next day and for the rest of the fiscal year.
By Aug. 9, Poff had resigned. Deputy Director David Wetzel is currently interim director.
"The Board and City Administration are in communication regarding the future of The Jackson Zoo," Graves said in a Aug 9 statement announcing Poff's resignation. "I'm confident that the Board and the City will work together to find a solution that's best for the animals, Zoo staff and the City of Jackson. In the meantime, our Zoo staff is committed to maintaining the highest quality experience for our members and guests every day. I hope that we all continue to support the Zoo throughout these tough times."
Graves is not taking interview requests at press time.
The vote of no-confidence came after a letter surfaced from Poff to Laura D. Jackson, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration, in which Poff admits to using state bond proceeds inappropriately, with the promise to restore said funds once the zoo got additional funding from the City.
"At this point we are out of options and out of potential avenues to fund operations," Poff wrote on July 26. "Given these circumstances, we made the decision to use funds from the Bond Proceeds to help with current operations, which include payroll, utilities, animal food, and insurance. All of which are necessities for day-to-day operations of the Jackson Zoo...."
Poff also asked for understanding in "these difficult times" in that letter.
Animals' Safety High Priority
Graves, who was copied on Poff's letter to Jackson, stood at the podium in council chambers at City Hall on Aug 2, as five council members with furrowed brows entertained his plea for a zoo bailout.
Jackson CAO Robert Blaine told the council that the Jackson Zoo had already requested $150,000 to cover salaries before the meeting. The zoo had indicated that it needed $300,000 for payroll for the remainder of the year and $132,000 in hard expenses. Blaine said zoo management had gotten into a practice of borrowing from debt coverage to make payroll and restoring those funds after the City of Jackson remitted its payment to the zoo.
"This practice has caused a lack of funds in debt coverage that today amounts to $350,000," Blaine said. The CAO added that $150,000 of that amount came from the bond issue in 2015 and the rest from bond fund issued in 2016.
Blaine made it clear that the City could provide up to $200,000 for operations and salaries for a transitional period between August and September—the zoo's annual allocation from the City comes in October.
This brings the City's all-in support of the zoo for this fiscal year to approximately $1.18 million. Ward 6 Councilman Aaron Banks suggested giving more, but Blaine said no because he said the City had already pulled as much as possible from salaries of unfilled positions citywide.
"The administration feels strongly that the safety and the administration of the animals in the zoo are of prime concern. We want to make sure there are no adverse effects to the collection," Blaine said.
Throughout the Aug 2 special council meeting, Kimberly Hardy, the zoo board's treasurer and secretary, said that the zoo needed more than $200,000 to properly care for the animals, feed them and keep a veterinarian on staff. She also mentioned that the zoo was two months behind on employee health-care payments.
Chief of Staff Safiya Omari reminded the zoo representatives of the $55,000 coming from the Hinds County Board of Supervisors through an interlocal agreement.
Council President Melvin Priester of Ward 2 said he was very uncomfortable approving money to the zoo without concrete numbers on paper about visitation, payroll, etc. In the end, he voted nay, with Ashby Foote of Ward 1, Virgi Lindsay of Ward 7, Charles Tillman of Ward 5 and Banks voting in support of giving the zoo $200,000.
A collection of stories about the Jackson Zoo and the west Jackson neighborhood around it.
Shuttering Zoo to Public One Option
Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba said at the last council meeting on July 31 that the City's legal department had cleared the request for proposal to find a new management company to run the zoo and that it would come across his desk in short order for his signature.
"We thank Beth Poff for her service," the mayor said in a statement on Aug 9. "We remain focused on the goal of providing a quality zoo and have already started the process of selecting new management."
Blaine said the estimated transition period between current management group and new management group would be between three to six months.
Shuttering the zoo to the public is one possible option for bringing down operation costs and saving money, while making sure animals have proper care until the City finds a new management company. Blaine said this would also allow time to create a development plan for the future of the zoo and the Capitol Street corridor.
"We really see this as a holistic opportunity to focus on this part of the city and to bring the resources that are needed not just for the redevelopment of the zoo, but for the redevelopment of the area as well," he said.
Laura Jackson, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration send an Aug. 9 letter to the Jackson Zoo giving it until Nov. 16 to repay the misappropriated funds and any unspent bond proceeds.
Zoo Accreditation OK ... for Now
These challenges are not taking place in a vacuum. John Seyjagat, executive director of the Zoological Association of America, the group that accredits the Jackson Zoo, sent a letter to the zoo board president, the interim executive director of the zoo, the city council and the mayor on Aug. 6 to express his alarm with the ongoing issues at the zoo and his concerns for the welfare of the animal collection and staff safety.
In a phone interview on Aug. 9, Seyjagat told the Jackson Free Press that he wants to stay out of the politics around the situation, but that the ZAA will help anyway it can in terms of maintaining a standard of animal care or even relocating them or possibly loaning them to other zoos or facilities in the interim.
Seyjagat said that the zoo's accreditation could be at risk if the financial situation is not resolved and if they cannot keep enough staff to run the zoo or find an executive director.
"But, today the Jackson Zoo's accreditation is not at risk until we know what their future plans are," he said. That can change in a heartbeat, so we'll wait."
The Jackson Zoo maintains that "all daily operations continue as normal," advertising a Pokemon Go event this upcoming weekend and other activities in September. But in reality, things have not been "normal" there for quite some time. As the Jackson Free Press previously reported, visitation numbers have plummeted in recent years. A 2016 economic-impact study said the zoo employed 36 individuals who produced goods and services valued at $2.5 million.
Poff estimated that the new site could employ as many as 300 people. In the last 10 years, visitation fell from nearly 200,000 in 2006 to just above 100,000 in 2016.
Early in Mayor Lumumba's tenure, he and the zoo leadership were on the same page to get the neighborhood around the zoo cleaned up, blight-free. But the blight-elimination grant the mayor envisioned for west Jackson was approved for other areas in the City. By springtime, the zoo leadership announced it would move across town to LeFleur's Bluff State Park. The mayor lambasted this decision.
Now, as Seyjagat put it, everyone just has to sit back and wait for those in charge to work it out.
"At this time, it is a waiting game," he said.
Email city reporter Ko Bragg at [email protected] and read more at jfp.ms/zoo.