Additional funding for the Utica Zoo and for creating an Emergency Services coordinator position was approved by the county Board of Legislators, but with some opposing votes.
Legislators on May 9 voted 19-3 to approve an additional $150,000 allotment for the zoo for this year, and 21-1 to create a program coordinator position in the Department of Emergency Services at a salary of $45,473. In the discussions:
• The zoo funding is expected to be followed in 2019 by another $150,000 special allocation, for an additional $300,000 overall. The special funding will be on top of the annual zoo funding of $300,000 that is maintained in the county budget.
The additional money is geared to help pay for deferred maintenance and rehabilitation costs to enable the facility to achieve accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Contrasting comments for and against the funding were expressed by legislators before the vote.
The opposing votes were by Richard Flisnik, R-8, Marcy; Brian Mandryck, R-17, Lee; and Michael Waterman R-5, Camden.
Flisnik, noting that the county in 2007 approved additional zoo funding when the facility was in “dire straits,” said that 11 years later it “looks fantastic” and has “come a long way.” He observed that it does not have any debt, and applauded the facility for its improvements. However, while Flisnik said he is “pro-zoo,” he also cited many “priorities within the county,” adding that “allocating another $150,000” for the zoo is “not the right thing at this point.”
But legislator James M. D’Onofrio, R-15, New Hartford, cited the zoo’s attributes including the strategic planning of its management plus its cultural aspects for the area. It is “truly worth” the investment for two years, he said, adding “you’re going to get it back ten-fold.”
Among other legislators who spoke in support of the additional funding were Edward P. Welsh, R-19, Utica, and William Hendricks, D-20, Utica. Hendricks said the zoo “adds a lot of quality of life” to Utica, and it is “money well-spent.” Welsh called the zoo a regional asset.
After the meeting, Mandryck said he voted against the funding for similar reasons as Flisnik. He also questioned whether a precedent would be set for other area agencies seeking additional funding, and “can you say ‘no’ to the next one.” Waterman after the meeting acknowledged the zoo’s accomplishments and said he understood the accreditation’s significance. But he also observed that the special zoo funding 11 years ago was “one of the hottest topics in the western part of the county,” where money had been unsuccessfully sought for needs in that area.
In an announcement by County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr.’s office after the meeting, Picente said “the zoo has made unprecedented strides to correct its financial situation and put itself on a path of growth that will benefit the entire Mohawk Valley. In order to take the next step in its aggressive master plan, it needs our help to supplement the cost of more than 20 years of deferred maintenance to secure its long-sought accreditation.”
Zoo Executive Director Andria Heath said in the announcement, “it is only through the vision, leadership and support of our partners in Oneida County that we can accomplish this coveted accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which will help us make great strides in realizing our potential.”
• Flisnik was the only legislator who voted against creating the county Department of Emergency Services program coordinator position.
Flisnik commented that the department has had “a lot of expansion” in the past 11 years including taking on additional responsibilities for 911 calls that Utica and New Hartford previously had handled separately.
He also referred to substantial increases in the department’s funding and staffing that was “money well-spent...the right thing to do.”
However, Flisnik said he was voting against the coordinator position because a deputy director position that he supported in 2016 “mimics in many ways” the coordinator position.
But D’Onofrio countered that based on explanations which accompanied the coordinator position request, there is “a need for the services this position is going to bring.”