By Bob Uphues
Facing an operating budget cut of more than $1.5 million during fiscal year 2018, which began Jan. 1, the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, has laid off about 10 full-time staffers and won't fill another eight positions that were vacant.
Sandi Dornhecker, vice president of human resources for the Chicago Zoological Society, confirmed the layoffs last week. The total number of full-time equivalent positions eliminated in the 2018 budget was 17.5, said Dornhecker. Of that number 9.6 were positions that had been filled.
Since the cuts were announced in late 2017, said Dornhecker, two of those positions have been restored.
Brookfield Zoo employs about 420 full-time staffers and, depending on the time of year, employs between 1,100 and 1,200 seasonal employees. The layoffs represented a full-time workforce reduction of about 4 percent.
"We worked hard to minimize the impact on our staff," Dornhecker said.
The layoffs, said Dornhecker, were spread across departments at Brookfield Zoo and included marketing staff, education positions, zoo keepers, line staff and management staff.
"The scope of the reduction was relatively small," Dornhecker said, "and were driven by rising costs and a need to balance the budget."
No more layoffs are planned in 2018, she said.
According to the Chicago Zoological Society's 2018 budget, which is outlined in the budget of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, the 2018 appropriation for animal programs is being cut by $580,000 (3.7 percent).
The appropriation for administration and security is being cut by $878,000 (8.2 percent), while the appropriation for guest services is being cut by $952,051 (6 percent). Development, membership and government relations is being cut by $206,000 (3.7 percent).
The only areas where the 2018 appropriation will be higher than a year ago is in buildings and grounds and conservation, whose budgets are increasing by about 4 percent.
About 22 percent of the Chicago Zoological Society's annual revenues come from the Cook County Forest Preserve District. According to its 2018 recommended budget, the Cook County Forest Preserve District has planned on reducing its contribution to Brookfield Zoo by 3 percent.
The reduction reflects softer-than-anticipated attendance in 2017, following a cold snap in late December that curtailed tickets sold for Holiday Magic.
When the 2018 budget was crafted, officials anticipated that 2017 attendance would hit the 2.31 million mark by year's end. The actual number of zoo visitors in 2017 tallied about 2.22 million, according to zoo spokeswoman Sondra Katzen.
Lower-than-expected attendance resulted in lower revenues from ticket sales and parking fees. Zoo attendance is expected to be flat in 2018 compared to the actual total in 2017, and revenues related to admissions and parking will be about 27 percent lower than zoo officials initially had predicted for 2017.
In addition, year over year income from education and "other" sources is expected to fall in 2018 by about $1.1 million, a 44 percent reduction. Meanwhile, sponsorship revenue and "unrestricted contributions" are expected to fall by $1.1 million, or 18 percent, in 2018.
Offsetting those predicted decreases somewhat are a projected 16 percent bump in revenue from memberships and animal adoptions (about $2 million) and an 84 percent increase in revenue from endowment investments (about $900,000).
The reduction in the contribution by the Cook County Forest Preserve District is also a reflection of overall pressures Cook County officials are feeling to balance their own books. After county commissioners repealed an unpopular tax on sugary beverages last year, it cut off what was expected to be a critical source of revenue.
"We're aware of the county's problems and we're sure they'll trickle down to us," Dornhecker said. "We do expect we're going to feel some of that."
The last time Brookfield Zoo cut numerous positions in the face of budget shortfalls was during the nationwide economic recession. In December 2010, Crain's Chicago Business reported that the zoo was cutting 11 positions to close a $1.3 million budget gap.
At the time, Crain's noted, it was "the second time in two years" that the Chicago Zoological Society had made such cuts.