Should San Joaquin County pour money into a new snow leopard exhibit, or should precious tax dollars be allocated to other projects county officials say they can't afford?
That's the dilemma facing a conflicted Board of Supervisors, who postponed a decision Tuesday on whether to spend $175,000 to design a new snow leopard exhibit at Micke Grove Zoo and supervise its construction.
Three supervisors wanted more time to determine whether to hire an architectural consultant, or if the money would be better spent to offset painful budget cuts the board has made the past few years.
If the $175,000 is approved for architectural drawings, the next step will be to construct the exhibit with an estimated $1.36 million in the county's public improvement fund, a combination of county general fund dollars and money raised by the Micke Grove Zoological Society. The consultant, MESA Architect Inc., would develop cost estimates to construct the exhibit.
Society Vice President Diana DeBruno, of Lodi, told the board that zoo visitors ask the staff on a daily basis why improvements haven't been made to the east end of the zoo.
The zoological society is raising money to bring a breeding male and female snow leopard to the zoo once the plans are drawn, DeBruno said.
The snow leopard exhibit is part of the zoo's long-term master plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 2006. Snow leopards were selected as an animal of choice back in 2003, county Parks and Recreation Director Craig Ogata told the board.
Later on Tuesday, zoo director Ken Nieland said that county officials chose the snow leopard for a portion of the undeveloped east end of the zoo, which is not currently open to visitors, because large cats are among the most popular exhibits at Micke Grove.
The zoo already has a snow leopard, but he is extremely old, Ogata said. The 19-year-old leopard, Ling, appears before zoo visitors on a rotational basis with the zoo's mountain lion, Ogata said. Snow leopards have traditionally been a popular feature at Micke Grove and have successfully been bred there, Nieland said. Having snow leopards there gives visitors something to compare with other large cats, he added.
Supervisor Ken Vogel, whose Lodi-area district includes the zoo, supported the $175,000 expenditure for architectural services, and Supervisor Larry Ruhstaller strongly opposed it. Other supervisors had mixed feelings. For example:
- Leroy Ornellas asked whether the $175,000 is legally restricted to zoo projects or if it can be used to balance the budget. Ogata said it is general fund money that can be used for any county purpose.
- Board chairman Steve Bestolarides said he is concerned about funding snow leopards during an economic time when county employees have agreed to salary and benefit concessions and supervisors have previously postponed funding other county projects.
- Bestolarides and Ruhstaller said they are frustrated about receiving a funding request for one specific item without evaluating other county projects. Bestolarides said he would like his board colleagues to develop a park priority funding list for the entire county before voting on the snow leopards.
At the same time, supervisors said that Micke Grove Zoo is an asset to the county and they'd like to see the zoo improved nearly a decade after the master plan was adopted.
"I can see both sides of the issue," Supervisor Carlos Villapudua said. "I apologize. I need to do more homework."
Underground utilities for the proposed snow leopard exhibit were installed in 2008, and a building to house a kitchen and support services for the animals has been constructed.
The issue is scheduled to return to the Board of Supervisors in about a month.
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.