The zoo at Benton’s Cypress Black Bayou Park & Recreation Area is headed in a new direction.
The impending changes are the result of findings by the Cypress Black Bayou Recreation and Water Conservation District board of commissioners, who determined last year that there are major issues to address at the zoo, including a lack of organized structure, the zoo’s expansion beyond its original purpose as stated in the passed millage and a growing budget that the district can no longer afford.
The original purpose of the zoo was to be a Louisiana-themed attraction featuring animals that are native to the state. Through the years, it has become a place for exotic animals and a refuge for citizens to bring in sick and injured animals, thus creating a rehabilitation center.
President Chris Baker said commission started looking into the millage, which will be up for renewal in November, and more specifically at the wording. That millage, passed for the year 2005 and ending with the year 2014, states a “10 year 1.54 mills property tax” was passed for “improving, operating and maintaining the public facilities of said district for the benefit of the public, including the operation and maintenance of a children’s zoo.”
“It says nothing about a rehabilitation center or supporting the rehab center with tax dollars within that district,” Baker said.
So, they set out to find a way to transition the zoo back to its original purpose. According to a document released by the board of commissioners, options include gradually returning the zoo back to its original purpose (a children’s petting zoo that consists of animals found in Louisiana) within the zoo’s $125,000 allotted budget; or the district continue funding the current exotic animal exhibits within the zoo’s $125,000 allotted budget as well as a scaled-back rehabilitation center for a period of time or until the zoo can establish itself as a non-profit corporation; or to separate the two entities completely, allowing the park to fund the zoo at a non-profit status a $125,000 grant to be spent for the zoo’s original purpose and to raise enough money on its own to fund exotic animals and the rehabilitation center for the 2014 year.
Baker was quite clear, though, when he said the zoo will not close.
“The zoo is not closing. It can’t close. The millage says that we have to have a zoo out there,” he said. “We need to do something so the animals do not suffer or get turned away, but we don’t need to continue spending tax dollars on something that’s not supposed to be spent on.”
The board of commissioners is currently working with the zoo staff and attorneys from both parties to come up with a plan that will work best for redirecting the zoo. Baker said the biggest struggle recently is controlling the amount of misinformation released to the public through popular social media websites, resulting in an onslaught of angry citizens at their general meeting this month. Rumors buzzing around websites like Facebook, Baker said, are in fact just rumors.
“Funding has not been cut at the zoo,” he said. “We are working toward a mission change to redirect the zoo back to its original purpose as it is stated in the millage.”
At the end of the day, Baker said the main goal is to create an environment that is within the boundaries of the law.
“The tax payers in Bossier Parish put us in charge of running a children’s park and a children’s zoo,” he said. “People are very passionate about these animals, but they have to understand the board’s position. We are not trying to do away with the animals and we’re not sending them away. Things just have to be done according to the millage.”
Since the original millage will only be up for renewal, Baker said they can’t change it to include funding for the rehabilitation center.
“If it was a new millage, it could be changed to fund the rehab center. This is just a renewal of the previous amount and terms.”
Another problem they have to overcome is determining just how much money it takes to run the rehabilitation facility.
“We’ve instituted a new accounting program to take a closer look at the expenses,” Baker added. “We can give an answer to that next year, but not at this time.”
The next steps in this lengthy process will be discussed at February’s general meeting, which will be Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 4 p.m. in the Nature Center at Cypress Black Bayou Park.
“We’re not demanding they be ready by next month because it may take them a while to get their non-profit application submitted and approved. That could take a couple months,” Baker said. “Our verbal agreement in the interim is that they are supposed to give us reports and show progress. As long as they do that, we will continue to work with their staff to keep up our end.”