Brookfield Zoo officials are pursuing a plan today to allow the zoo to purchase its water directly from the Brookfield-North Riverside Water Commission and bypass entirely the village of Brookfield, whose trustees on Monday confirmed their intention to raise water rates for the zoo by 112 percent, a move that would cost the zoo between $300,000 and $700,000 annually.
Stuart Strahl, president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates the zoo, said the cash-strapped village was attempting to simply cash in on the existence of the zoo, which draws roughly 2 million visitors to the area each year.
“It’s about the village of Brookfield seeing us as a cash cow to fund whatever they need funded,” Strahl told the Landmark in an interview on Monday. “They haven’t justified it to me, our board or the board of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.”
Meanwhile, at least four Brookfield trustees, a majority, on Monday night said they agreed with raising water rates for the zoo, which has been paying for its water at cost from the village. The village, since 1989, has added a surcharge to the water cost. In 2009, the last year that fee was paid, it was $105,000. Currently there is no contract in place for a surcharge.
“How do I tell Irish Times or my neighbor or my wife and tell them the zoo, just because they’re the Chicago Zoological Society Inc. that they receive a break on water?” asked Trustee Michael Towner. “We’re a community. We realize our responsibility to support the infrastructure. Everybody pays the same fee. The zoo ought to pay the same rate for the infrastructure of our water supply.”
Brookfield officials called the rates they charge the zoo “preferential,” and suggested the institution be brought in line with other water customers. The zoo currently pays $2.94 per 1,000 gallons of water, compared to the residential rate of $6.22 per 1,000 gallons. With the surcharge included in the calculation, the zoo paid a rate equal to about $3.50 per 1,000 gallons, according to village figures.
Gerald Callahan, an attorney representing the Chicago Zoological Society, shot back in a prepared statement at Monday night’s village board meeting, that the village’s proposal was “misguided.” He also suggested that the village has been improperly funding daily operations through transfers from its water fund to the general fund. The proposed rate hike, he said, was nothing more than a way to use water rates to fund operational expenses.
“This increase is being considered even though the village adjusted water rates two months ago on Aug. 9, 2010, underscoring the fact that the proposal to increase rates again is nothing more than a vehicle for extracting revenue from the zoo,” Callahan said.
Village President Michael Garvey on Tuesday said that the zoo’s attorney did not understand that the transfers made from the water fund to the general fund reflected direct costs to the village’s general fund for water operations, such as salaries and equipment.
“I would’ve thought the zoo would have investigated that,” Garvey said.
Strahl objected to the view by Brookfield officials that the zoo is a burden on the village of Brookfield instead of being a benefit. Citing research done by the zoo and published in a direct mail piece sent to all Brookfield residents recently, Strahl said that 40 percent of Brookfield’s entire population was directly impacted by the zoo as employees, volunteers or members; 145 Brookfield residents work at the zoo, he said.
In addition, he said, the zoo accounts for $3.7 million annually in economic activity for Brookfield and contributed $95,000 in sales taxes in 2009 to Brookfield. The zoo also was directly responsible for $1.5 million in revenue for local businesses, he said.
The first cracks in the zoo’s relationship with the village appeared in June when Brookfield officials proposed imposing a 3-percent amusement tax, which among other things targeted zoo admissions, parking and membership fees. Such a tax might have raised approximately $500,000 in additional annual revenue for Brookfield, according to village estimates.
The zoo protested the proposed tax, saying it would be harmful to attendance and membership levels and would directly affect the zoo’s mission regarding education and conservation.
While the village backed off moving forward with the tax, Matt Mayer, the zoo’s vice president for government affairs, made it clear today that the imposition of such a tax would trigger “legal action within 24 hours.”
According to Mayer, imposing an amusement tax on a cultural institution such as Brookfield Zoo was unconstitutional. The zoo’s lawyers, said Mayer, “advised us the village didn’t have the legal authority to impose a tax on admissions or memberships.”
Since June, zoo and village officials have discussed setting up a municipal services agreement whereby the zoo might reimburse the village for municipal services the zoo uses. As the research was done, however, according to Strahl, apart from fire protection, there wasn’t much Brookfield provided.
As far as water service, the zoo’s source for 98 percent of the water it uses is a 200-foot-long pipe connected to the Brookfield-North Riverside Water Commission’s main on First Avenue – built in the late 1980s, according to former Village Manager Jim Mann, and located entirely within the village of Riverside.
Prior to the new connection being built, the zoo did receive its water directly through Brookfield’s water system and paid the residential rate for water. As the zoo grew and that system was unable to handle the capacity the zoo needed, the new connection to the water commission’s main was added. The village and the zoo inked a new deal for the use of that pipe, which included a lower cost for the water but added the surcharge.
Since 1989, Brookfield has collected a surcharge from the zoo for maintenance of that connection, which is owned by the village of Brookfield. In 2009, that surcharge amounted to $105,000 above and beyond the $510,000 in charges for the water itself.
According to a letter dated Oct. 6 from the zoo’s attorney to the water commission’s attorney, the village of Brookfield was proposing a 5 percent increase to the water rate, an annual surcharge of $125,000 and a municipal services agreement calling for an additional $375,000 payment to the village.
If the zoo didn’t agree, the village would seek to raise the zoo’s water rates to what Brookfield charges its residential customers. According to calculations done by Brookfield Finance Director Doug Cooper in July, the difference would amount to a roughly $300,000 annual increase. Zoo officials contend that the water charges would actually increase by roughly $700,000 per year.
“[For Brookfield] to put $700,000 in next year’s [zoo] budget is like saying we’re going to pass all our financial problems on to you,” Strahl said of the village’s proposal.
The Brookfield-North Riverside Water Commission is expected to address the zoo’s proposal to buy its water directly from them at the commission’s meeting today at 11 a.m.