The public will be tapped to pay for zoo expansion

In the past year, Oakland residents have twice witnessed the spectacle of the city government sounding the alarm of pending massive cuts in the budget. Last spring, then new mayor Jean Quan issued her three budget scenarios (A,B, and C) in which the city would have to choose which vital services to cut. Libraries would be cut, senior services, city and non-profit agency jobs.

In the midst of these dire budget hearings, the City was simultaneously deciding whether to approve one of the most expensive projects in its history….the 56-acre theme-park expansion of the Oakland Zoo into the highlands of Knowland Park. Despite our frequent mention of the lack of vital financial information available for public scrutiny and for the government to make an informed decision, the City Council unanimously approved the zoo expansion project.

Then in February, after the state redevelopment funds disappeared, the City underwent yet another round of budget cuts.

Amid the scramble for money, it’s often difficult to keep track of where money is going and of the larger planning context that a fiscally sound city government must maintain.

We have repeatedly made the claim that the environmentally damaging Zoo expansion project is also a needlessly expensive one. Indeed, the size and cost of the ridgeline portion of the project has ballooned from its price tag of about $27 million when the voters approved Measure G to a now staggering $60 million.

Here is some of what we can know, and some of what should be available in the public record, on the City’s financial arrangements with the Oakland Zoo expansion:

  • February’s budget Council hearing following the loss of state redevelopment funds ended up restoring a City subsidy of $600,000 per year for operation of the existing zoo and park operations in Knowland Park. The City is required to provide the Zoo $172,000 per year under a 2005 management agreement, but for years, the zoo has consistently required a subsidy well above that baseline figure.
  • There is an “Oakland Zoo Economic Impact” report out with estimates on the plus side of the proposed Zoo expansion project. What’s entirely missing from the report, and in public discussions at the City Council, is any mention (or actual figures) of the other side of the economic impact on the public….how much the public will be tapped to pay for the construction and ongoing operations of a big zoo expansion further into Knowland Park?
  • The zoo expansion plans released last March by the City now add an expensive gondola structure and a 34,000 square foot building with offices on the park’s ridgeline. This latest expansion scheme approved by the Council is very different than the 1996 and 1998 City plans and policies that were in place when voters approved Measure G to help fund a smaller, less costly “California exhibit”.
  • From a national perspective, zoos in other cities have built exhibits highlighting conservation of regionally-native animals, birds, and reptiles at a fraction (less than 1/5) of the cost of Oakland’s zoo expansion plan.

City Administrator Deanna Santanna’s December budget letter states that Oakland needs to pull together a financial plan so that there are funds in the future for even basic things like replacing fire pumper and ladder trucks and  a safe, usable street and sidewalk infrastructure.

In our efforts to get clear, comprehensive information on what the public currently gives to support the Oakland Zoo, and what portion of the proposed $60 million ridgeline development (and ongoing operational costs) would be borne by the public, we’ve repeatedly encountered obfuscation and vague official responses.

Where is the financial transparency on this multi-million dollar expansion plan? Where are the standard financial feasibility and marketing reports that residents and elected officials could review to be assured that giving away scarce public funds and 56 acres of the City’s most beautiful and biodiverse parkland makes fiscal sense for Oakland?

Can your district Council member provide you that financial assurance or information?

You can ask them.

District 1 Jane Brunner (510) 238-7001

District 2 Pat Kernighan (510) 238-7002

District 3 Nancy Nadel (510) 238-7003

District 4 Libby Schaaf (510) 238-7004

District 5 Ignacio De La Fuente (510) 238-7005

District 6 Desley Brooks (510) 238-7006

District 7 Larry Reid (510) 238-7007

Councilmember At-Large Rebecca Kaplan (510) 238-7008

Jim Hanson grew up in the East Bay and originally heard about out the City’s development plans for Knowland Park from the East Bay Chapter of the Native Plant Society and the Sierra Club Yodeler. A landscape architect, Jim appreciates the subtle beauty of the native bunchgrass prairies and meadow lands of California. He has served on the Board of Directors of the California Native Grasslands Association for several years and was recently elected its President. He likes to take fellow Oaklanders and Bay Area visitors to the Knowland Park highlands to point with pride how a vibrant, busy city still keeps its natural wealth.

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One Response to The public will be tapped to pay for zoo expansion

  1. Terry Sayre February 23, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    This degree of obfuscation and head in the sand “blind faith” in this land grab by a private entity, is simply unacceptable and I hope many of you will join me in expressing outrage at Oakland city officials not only rubber staming this costly project but failing to provide real information to the public.

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