LEXINGTON COUNTY, S.C. (WIS) - Higher admission costs and possible job cuts could be coming to Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia if a proposal on the table with Lexington County Council is approved.
Lexington County contributes about seven percent of the zoo’s funding each year but under this year’s proposed budget plan, the zoo could be looking at a more than 60% cut in funding.
“They told me Lexington is growing, it’s a great county and they needed to support the growth,” said Tommy Stringfellow, CEO of Riverbanks Zoo. “The roads, the employees, things like that. They weren’t very specific with the dollars but that they would take the dollars that they funded the zoo and utilize it for that purpose.”
County officials tell us the reallocation of funds is being looked at as a way to develop a balanced budget and that “as County continues grow at a rapid pace, which means they must focus on funding the core services of County government.”
Right now as a millage agency, the county gives the zoo $1.28 million each year which comes to about $6.00 in funding from each Lexington County household. Under the proposed budget plan, the zoo would be cut as a county millage agency and instead the county would give money to zoo from the general fund, amounting to $500,000.
“It would, first of all, we’d have to look at our expenses,” said Stringfellow. “Our biggest expenses are salaries and wages. That deep a cut would require us to look at reduction in our workforce. It would require us to look at all the utilities that we pay to support and the maintenance that we use those dollars for.”
Leaders at the zoo say in addition to considering shrinking their workforce, they may have to raise the price of admission tickets or offer fewer free admission days at the zoo if council votes in favor of these changes.
Leaders at Riverbanks say Lexington County has been contributing to the zoo with an operations fund for about 40 years, and they use that funding to offer free events, including free admission days for Lexington County residents on designated dates throughout the year. Stringfellow says he supports council’s desire to support the growth of Lexington County, but feels the zoo helps contribute to that.
“I support them. I know the growth is strong, and I know they need the tax dollars,” said Stringfellow. “I’m hoping they see that this $6 per household investment returns a lot of dollars in economic impact.”
The zoo says a recent study revealed it has an annual economic impact of $148 million on Lexington and Richland counties.
As it stands now, Riverbanks Zoo receives 12% of its funding from Richland County, 12% from private donations, 7% from Lexington County with the rest coming from zoo revenue. The zoo has said some have suggested the zoo should be privately funded. Stringfellow says there are only two AZA zoo’s in the country that operate with private funds, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and San Diego Zoo.
“It would be only affordable to those who have a lot of money and we know the attendance would decrease,” said Stringfellow.
The budget proposal has only had its first reading with Lexington County Council, and there will be an opportunity for public input on May 28 at 6 p.m.
A statement we received from Lexington County Officials says: “At this time, County Council is undergoing the process in developing a balanced budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The budget has not yet been finalized and is still a very fluid process. Until the budget undergoes a public hearing, which is scheduled to occur on May 28th, as well as second and third-and-final readings, it is not finalized. County Council began discussions with the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden in 2018 that future funding would be subject to change. County Council is faced with the growing demand for high-quality services to the residents of our county, especially as the County continues grow at a rapid pace, which means they must focus on funding the core services of County government.”