Raleigh, N.C. — A bill that would turn the daily operations of the North Carolina Zoo cleared the House Finance Committee Monday. It next goes to a budget committee for review before heading to the floor and then on to the Senate.
Under the bill, the state would continue to own the real estate and buildings on the zoo property, but the N.C. Zoo society would operate the zoo and own the "personal property" such as the animals and the vehicles.
Making the zoo privately run would free it to operate more like a business, say proponents of the plan. In particular, it would allow for the zoo to pursue a third major exhibit area, the Asia "continent" and develop areas next to the zoo for hotels and other private attractions.
"It really takes us down a path that 75 percent of the other zoos nationwide have gone down, which is a true public-private partnership," said Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe.
Lawmakers cannot require future General Assemblies to spend money. However, the plan also calls for the state to make six $5 million payments to help pay for delayed repairs and renovations at the zoo, a total of $30 million. That was one of two points in the measure that troubled some lawmakers.
Money for the zoo would come from the state's central repair and renovation fund. According to the state has $4.2 billion in waiting repair and renovation needs for a fund that will only total roughly $20 million this year, critics said.
"I simply don't see how it is justified to put the $5 million (for the zoo) at the top of the R&R list when the amount of money designated for R&R in the budget is so tiny," said Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham.
Another point of contention was the make up of the N.C. Zoo Society Board. Under the bill, two appointments would be made by the executive branch and two others would come from the legislature. The remainder of the 25 member board would come from the private sector.
"I am troubled that only 25 of these people would be coming from state government," Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, said. Given the amount of state money involved, she said, at least four members should be appointed by the legislature, along with the two executive branch appointments.
"The taxpayer has an investment so I don't think it's unreasonable to say the General Assembly ought to be able to have four appointees out of the 25 member board," said Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell.
Moffitt and Zoo Director David Jones noted that the state would have oversight over the operations under the terms of the management agreement. And the zoo needed board members from the private sector to raise money needed for expansion.
"The 21 members we will need have got to be powerful fundraisers," Jones said. "We hear what you're saying, but my own feeling is four should represent the state pretty well. We've just got to have a board that's really, really strong in supporting us."
And Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, said she didn't think the legislature should want more membership.
"The more people the General Assembly appoints, the more likely it is the board will ask those people to back to the General Assembly and ask for money," she said.
The measure cleared the committee on a voice vote.