Visitors to Micke Grove Zoo face a rather unwelcome ambiance when they walk in the front gate — a sea of construction fencing amidst the animals they came to see.
And the unsightly construction materials will remain for some time to come until San Joaquin County officials, who own the zoo, decide whether the $3 million needed to complete construction of separate snow leopard and otter exhibits should be moved to other county departments.
The $3 million is in the county Parks and Recreation budget and dedicated specifically toward the leopards and otters, but the Board of Supervisors face a serious budget crisis — a shortfall that recently went up from a projected $54 million to almost $56 million, according to County Administrator Manuel Lopez. That deficit could result in up to 600 people losing their jobs during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
So when county supervisors deliberate the 2010-11 county budget in June, they will decide whether to keep the $3 million for the zoo or to use it for other county operations such as law enforcement, roads or levee protection.
Perhaps funding the county zoo might be more important than other county projects, said Supervisor Carlos Villapudua, who toured Micke Grove Zoo on Monday with other county officials.
"We have to revisit our priorities," Villapudua said. "It seems like we're cutting activities for children that seem to be ongoing. (The zoo is) not only something to view, but it's educational."
The funding problem came to a head last summer, when the Micke Grove Zoological Society determined that it didn't have enough money to complete the expansion and remodeling to the east side of the zoo. In late January, the Board of Supervisors voted to accept the project and take it off the zoological society's hands.
But before Lopez was going to recommend to the Board of Supervisors how to handle the zoo's financial problem, he wanted to see the zoo expansion area first hand.
So zoo director Ken Nieland gave Lopez, Villapudua, Supervisor Ken Vogel, Parks and Recreation Director Craig Ogata and county Management Analyst Phonxay Keokham a tour of what expansion work's been done and what remains.
Zoological society officials had hoped the expansion would help restore Micke Grove's accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. By losing its accreditation in 2006, Micke Grove has greater difficulty in acquiring animals because many zoos will only exchange animals with other accredited zoos, Nieland said, and it's hurt the county's ability to hire needed staff. It can also affect Micke Grove's ability to acquire grant funds, Nieland said.
Some work has already been completed, Ogata said. The zoological society spent about $2 million, demolished an aviary and constructed a new veterinary clinic, he added. The project is about 40 percent complete.
Micke Grove Zoo at a glanceLocation: Micke Grove Park, 11793 N. Micke Grove Road, west of Highway 99 between Armstrong and Eight Mile roads, Lodi.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Christmas; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. May through September.
Admission: $2 for adults, $1 for youths 3 to 17 years; free for age 2 and under.
More information: Call 331-7270 or 953-8840, or visit www.mgzoo.com.
Source: Micke Grove Zoo
During Monday's tour, Nieland showed county officials two completed buildings, one to house the snow leopards and one to house the otters when they're not outdoors. The otters' building will include a water purifier that will allow zoo visitors to see the otters underwater.
Two of the high-ticket items, Nieland said, are some large outdoor cages needed for the snow leopards and some gunite rocks — high ledges since the leopards come from high elevations.
Vogel didn't have an answer to the funding dilemma, but he and Nieland wondered if state funding might be available to complete the project.