July 7, 2020

The Future of Public Funding

All zoos and aquariums have taken a massive hit in their earned revenue streams, but other funding streams have been impacted as well. Like everything, there’s an incredible amount of uncertainty regarding public funding streams. We know that city, county, and state budgets have been hit hard by the pandemic with a mix of both a decrease in revenue and an increase in costs including public health initiatives, unemployment, and other economic stimulus activities. It’s a double whammy.

Given that the large majority of zoos and some aquariums receive some type and level of public funding, the impacts of these fiscal constraints will be felt far and wide. While the percentage of operating budgets that come from tax-supported revenue can range from 5% to 50%, our estimates are that an average of 25% to 28% of revenue can come from these public sources. Additionally, many capital improvement dollars, whether it be to support infrastructure or for brand new exhibits, come from state coffers.

We’re all wondering what will happen to those revenue streams. Some are seeing immediate impacts. What’s happening now will be felt into 2022, given how public budgets are decided and funded.

With that as the backdrop, our Community Conversation session discussed the future of public funding and how we can plan for the potential changes to that source of financial support.

But first, we wanted to share some of what we’re seeing in states around the country…both the good and the bad.

The bad news…

  • Revenue from sales tax continued to plummet in May, dropping 32.3% compared to the same period last year, according to a report released by New York Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

  • “A new Oregon state revenue forecast projected an $8.8 billion drop in tax collections over the next three years.”

  • “In May, Florida economists projected that overall state sales-tax collections in April were down $598.2 million from an earlier estimate.”

But some good news too…

  • Utah state leaders also authorized a new $62 million grant program intended to boost struggling businesses and cultural, artistic, and recreation groups that promote travel in Utah. The program…targets cultural, artistic, botanical, recreational, and zoological groups that provide attractions to Utah visitors—and could help those entities cover up to twice their yearly net costs.”

  • “The Jacksonville, Florida City Council approved $16.5 million in federally funded grants to 72 Jacksonville-based nonprofits and community-oriented for-profits that suffered ‘severe economic impacts’ because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The largest grant of $4.2 million went to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. The grant will be applied to ‘deferred expenses’ and maintenance, said Kelly Rouillard, the Zoo’s Director of Marketing and Sales.”

  • “The Pima County Board in Tucson, Arizona voted to allocate more than $380,000 to tourism-related agencies in response to the economic impact of COVID-19. Nine non-profit community agencies will receive financial support from the County to promote events, celebrations, and programs that provide economic development and improve tourism in Pima County.”

ABQ BioPark in New Mexico saw their gross receipts tax revenue down only 2.7% in May. Saint Louis Zoo is projecting property tax revenue to drop only 5%. While public funding is at risk, commitments to zoos have remained stable (for now). Keesha Bullock from the Buffalo Zoo shared that the City and County “understand the role they play in the long-term survival of the zoo. What they said was how the rest of this/next year goes is dependent on the federal bailout. If they get it, we’ll be okay. If not, it could be a different story. We’re all watching Washington.”

We also heard a perspective from someone outside of our profession. We were joined by Dr. Lauren Miltenberger from Villanova University’s School of Public Administration. She shared—

  • This past semester, my students and I were reading “Creating a New Operating System for Cities” by Steven Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis. The book discusses big ideas about how governments and nonprofits connect, their relationships, and who has a seat at the table. Dr. Miltenberger noted, “You (zoos and aquariums) all have relationships with policymakers. But think it through—are you on the receiving end, or can you position yourself on the front end of that discussion? The CARES Act included money for housing/homelessness, but the way that money trickled through the system was unclear. Where are you in the pecking order?” She suggested organizations create policy briefs, schedule meetings with key government stakeholders, and share their value. “Be proactive to get a seat at the table. Zoos in particular are well-positioned due to them being outdoors and places to connect. Look at your organization and the relationships you have. See who you work well with, who you can bring together to move forward. Partnership and collaboration are always welcomed by government and philanthropy.”

Billy Brennan at the Saint Louis Zoo shared—

  • “Now is not the time to cut budgets in government affairs. DO NOT just assume your relationship with elected officials is good. Remind them that you‘ve fallen through the cracks and that current stimulus efforts have not been enough. The Saint Louis Zoo reaches out regularly to elected official offices and sends letters. Have your board and members send letters and include all the relevant statistics about what it takes to run the zoo or aquarium—i.e., how many animals; how much food you go through.”  

    He also gave his thoughts on future stimulus. “The future is uncertain. All signs are pointing towards another relief act, another CARES Act, towards the end of July. There’s uncertainty about what’s in it at this point. But we’re going to see support coming through to states, cities, counties. You can’t just worry about federal relationships—you need to look to state and local as well. Make sure you’re looking to see how that money is being disbursed.”

We finished with advice to maintain funding levels

  • “Keep in mind that we can’t lose sight of the areas where we were doing good work. Camp programs/education programs are different now, but don’t lose sight of those as potential sources of revenue. Ditto relationships—people look to our institutions.”

  • “Stay out there in front of your public on a regular basis. Keep people thinking about and loving you. Keep sending out those education pieces and videos. You need the public behind you.”

A special thanks to our speakers who shared their wisdom and expertise—

  • Cassandra Ray & Billy Brennan
    Saint Louis Zoo

  • Valerie Krueger
    Woodland Park Zoo

  • Keesha Bullock & Denise Schaefer
    Buffalo Zoo

  • Julie Rugg
    ABQ BioPark/New Mexico BioPark Society

  • Dr. Lauren Miltenberger
    Villanova University

Click here to view the full recording of the webinar session.

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