Simmering tensions between Zoo Atlanta and a government oversight board boiled over this week when a key adviser to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms criticized the ballooning cost of a major zoo expansion and blasted no-bid contracts and a failure by the zoo to meet requirements to hire minority-owned vendors.
Officials with the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority also took aim at the pay of zoo President and CEO Raymond King, whose total compensation more than doubled from 2013 to 2017 to nearly $630,000, putting him among the highest-paid zoo leaders in the nation.
“It’s a bigger picture than these loans, it’s the overall governance over there and making sure the money, the public money, is being spent the way we’re being told it’s supposed to be spent,” said Alvin Kendall, a consultant to the authority board and adviser to Bottoms.
The scathing critique came Tuesday during a rec authority board meeting where members were briefed on progress at the zoo’s Grand New View and Savanna Hall expansion. Most of the expansion is funded by donors, but a portion involving loans and state and federal historic tax credits is pending board approval.
For months, the authority has requested detailed financial records to vet the deal, but the zoo has been slow to respond, said Kerry Stewart, the authority’s executive director.
No zoo officials were present for Tuesday’s board meeting.
The zoo expansion includes a five-acre addition to its elephant habitat and a glitzy ballroom and banquet hall. It was initially proposed for $38 million, but the cost has increased to $56 million, nearly 50%. Board members were told the increased cost is in part due to steel tariffs and litigation involving trees.
But what started Tuesday as a walk-through of the complicated financing turned into a nearly hour-long discussion about the zoo’s business practices.
At issue were decisions by zoo leadership to hire its main construction contractor — Winter Johnson Group — without a bid. The authority also believes concessions and catering contracts were improperly extended to the Savanna Hall complex without bids, which the zoo disputes.
The zoo also has failed to meet a clause in its 2017 lease amendment to use minority- and women-owned vendors for 35% of its capital and operating purchases, Kendall said.
Zoo spokeswoman Rachel Davis said King was traveling and unavailable for an interview. Neither Davis nor King answered questions emailed by the AJC and Zoo Chairman John Ripoll did not respond to a request for comment.
In an emailed statement, Davis said, “Integrity and collaboration are values we hold dear at Zoo Atlanta.
“In the spirit of both these values, we have long been engaged in ongoing and productive conversations with the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority about various matters,” the statement said. “We are continuing to work with our partners at the Recreation Authority.”
Zoo Atlanta is managed by the nonprofit Atlanta Fulton County Zoo Inc., but the land is owned by the city. The rec authority has oversight of the zoo and as of 2017 must approve all contracts greater than three years in length or $1 million in value.
Zoo operations are largely funded by memberships, donations, ticket sales and concessions. But city taxpayers fund $21.8 million in bonds used for prior zoo upgrades and financing for Atlanta’s famed pandas.
The zoo doesn’t pay any operating revenue towards its bond debt currently, but would if annual attendance is sustained above 900,000 as many hope will happen after the new facilities are complete.
Cox Enterprises, the parent company of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a zoo donor and a corporate executive is a member of the zoo board. The James M. Cox Foundation also has donated at least $250,000 to the Savanna Hall expansion.
‘Processes were not followed’
In 2014, the zoo and then-Mayor Kasim Reed announced plans to expand the zoo and its African Savanna habitat. The Cyclorama, the giant circular painting depicting the Civil War Battle of Atlanta, would move to Atlanta History Center, and the zoo would take over the building as part of its expansion.
The city, meanwhile, agreed to build a new parking deck that ultimately would become a $35 million structure including a rooftop restaurant.
That parking deck project was awarded through competitive bid to Winter Johnson, a joint venture of Winter Construction and the minority-owned Johnson Construction Services, but the habitat expansion was not.
Doug Selby, the lawyer for the authority, said the construction contract “requires bidding.”
“Their president acknowledged their process were not followed,” Selby said.
King told Kendall if he could go back and open the matter for bidding he would, Kendall said.
City Councilwoman Carla Smith, who represents neighborhoods surrounding the zoo, said many of the issues raised by the authority were news to her, including the failure to meet disadvantage business contracting goals.
“They are supposed to follow the same rules that everyone else in the city follows,” Smith said. “They know this.”
Smith said she was aware of King’s compensation package. King has been CEO of the zoo since 2010. He’s been widely hailed as a prolific fundraiser and annual zoo attendance grew about 11% since from 2013 to 2017.
“I’m wondering what some of the regular employees make,” Smith said. “It might be fair to criticize it especially if other employees are not making a livable wage.”
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