Mayor Jean Stothert wants to continue Omaha government’s longstanding support of the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium — to the tune of $30.6 million over a decade.
Under a new agreement, the city would give the nonprofit that runs the zoo $2.4 million in 2021, increasing 5.5 percent a year to $3.8 million in 2030.
The city’s contribution has increased roughly the same percentage each of the past few years; it’s set to give the zoo $2.1 million next year and $2.3 million in 2020.
Stothert said the money is well-spent, given what the zoo gives back to the city in economic activity and new visitors to Omaha.
“I think it’s definitely worth our investment to keep subsidizing the zoo,” she said.
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During a recent public hearing before the Omaha City Council, zoo officials touted the zoo’s economic impact, which according to a study was $228 million to the City of Omaha in 2017 when considering what visitors to the city spend on hotels, meals and other things connected to their trips to the zoo.
Jeremy Eddie, the zoo’s senior vice president of finance and administration and chief financial officer, said through a spokeswoman that private donations have long funded new construction of the zoo’s signature exhibits.
But ongoing costs to run the zoo fall to the operating budget. The city money goes toward that operating budget, which includes paying 322 full-time employees and up to 1,000 part-time employees and covering the cost of repairing and maintaining buildings, animal exhibits, pathways and exhibits.
“The city’s commitment will help ensure the expanded zoo facilities and exhibits can be maintained at a high level, allowing Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium to remain one of the world’s best zoos and continue to generate a strong economic impact for Omaha,” Eddie said.
The proposal before the City Council would amend a 1964 agreement that established the role of the Omaha Zoological Society, the nonprofit that operates and maintains the zoo, which was built on the city-owned Riverview Park. The city today still owns the land.
That original agreement called for the city to give the zoo $100,000 a year the first four years.
The society brought in $65.3 million in revenue last year, which included $23.9 million in capital contributions, money that’s to be used on new construction, according to Eddie and the federal 990 tax form filed by the Zoological Society. The revenue included sources like ticket sales and grants.
Eddie said the zoo’s 2018 operating budget was $44.7 million. The city money represents about 4.5 percent of the annual operating budget. The zoo also gets funding from Douglas County, which has varied between $200,000 and $300,000 and is to be used on new capital projects.
The rest of the operating budget is covered by the Omaha Zoo Foundation, which contributes 4 percent of the budget, and earned revenues, which include ticket sales, rides, memberships, food and beverage sales, and sales from the gift shop, events and education programs.
An annual zoo membership is $84 for an individual and $135 for a household. Daily summer admission is $21.95 for adults and $15.95 for kids. The fee is less during other times of the year.
Also helping to boost the zoo’s coffers: Accredited zoos, which include the ones in Omaha and Lincoln, get a sales tax break under which they can keep the money and use it to upgrade their facilities. The Nebraska Legislature passed that bill three years ago.
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The zoo reported $52.9 million in expenses last year.
Stothert said the zoological society’s board, chaired by philanthropist and retired businessman Walter Scott Jr., asked for a meeting last spring to talk about the new agreement. The board suggested the 5.5 percent annual increase in city funds. That’s based off the current agreement and is comparable, she said.
“I’m very comfortable with doing this,” she said.
The city will pay for it using keno funds, said City Finance Director Steve Curtiss. When people play keno in Omaha, the city gets a portion of the proceeds, and the money is earmarked for community-betterment efforts.
Stothert said the city may have to supplement its portion with general funds in the future, depending on how much revenue keno generates. Under its newest city budget, the city is expecting to bring in $7.5 million next year from keno.
During the council meeting this week, Councilwoman Aimee Melton acknowledged that the agreement calls for a “fairly large amount” of city money to go to the zoo. But she said she plans to support it, based on what the zoo provides the city.
The council is set to vote on the agreement Tuesday. It’s listed under the consent agenda, which is generally reserved for matters that are expected to generate little to no discussion.
The zoo said more than 2 million people visited the zoo in 2016 and 2017, and the portion of out-of-state visitors has grown to more than one-third.
But Dennis Pate, the zoo’s executive director and CEO, said the zoo’s impact goes beyond economic activity. Last year, he said, the zoo gave away 39,431 tickets worth more than $600,000 to people in need.
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The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium introduced a week-old female giraffe on March 23, 2012. The calf was the first born at Omaha's zoo since 2007 but the 29th overall since 1979. Giraffe calves are usually six feet tall and 150 pounds at birth. Within an hour of birth, calves are usually up and nursing.
A vampire bat is seen at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium on Oct. 29, 2013. The zoo teamed up with Iowa State University to find the best food for vampire bats, which each need about 2 tablespoons of blood a day.
An African lion rests at the Henry Doorly Zoo on a hot summer day in July 1971.
Five baby rockhopper penguin chicks were on display at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014.
An emperor angelfish swims at the redesigned and newly renovated Scott Aquarium at the Henry Doorly Zoo on March 26, 2012.
Twin white-handed gibbons sit in their mother's lap on Friday, June 10, 2011, in the Henry Doorly Zoo's Lied Jungle. The rare twins were born on April 13, 2011.
Nicole Linafelter feeds a sleepy African lion cub at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Friday, Jan. 4, 2012. The runt of the litter, the cub had been removed from her mother's care, and Linafelter, a veterinary technician, was one of the people caring for the then-week-old cub.
Little Joe, a 450-pound lion, is seen on Aug. 9, 1950. Sold to Omaha Parks and Recreation by Council Bluffs poundmaster Chris Christensen, Little Joe didn't like his cage. He lunged at passers-by, sweeping his paw at the shadows of onlookers.
Incoming first-graders at Bancroft Elementary and zoo day camp students got a sneak peek at the new Zoo Academy and Children's Adventure Trails at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on June 29, 2017.
Elephants make their public debut at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium on Wednesday, April 6, 2016.
Gail Yanney and Dr. Lee Simmons have their hands full while holding a python at at zoo benefit. Guests took turns petting the python during the Zoofari VII Fundraiser at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on Sept. 11, 1989.
Black-handed spider monkeys climb in their habitat at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014.
Two red-fronted macaws fly on Thursday, June 15, 2017, at the opening of the Holland Meadowlark Amphitheater at the Henry Doorly Zoo. The area will be used for live bird shows, held three times a day and featuring 15 species of birds.
In the Desert Dome, Zachery Torres, a sophomore at Omaha South High School, cleans the glass around the turkey vulture exhibit at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Tuesday, June 23, 2015.
A klipspringer hangs out in its enclosure at the Henry Doorly Zoo's new African Grasslands exhibit on Friday, May 27, 2016.
Spider monkeys rest in the lagoon area at the Henry Doorly Zoo's new African Grasslands exhibit on Friday, May 27, 2016.
A group of female impala are seen at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Lions Johnny and Sandy are seen on Aug. 12, 1965. The lions were featured in the Zoo's Who that year.
An Amur tiger cub shows the start of his fangs on Aug. 18, 2016, at the Henry Doorly Zoo. The cubs were vaccinated and chipped during their debut that morning.
A pair of vampire bats are seen at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium on Oct. 29, 2013. The zoo teamed up with Iowa State University to find the best food for vampire bats, which each need about 2 tablespoons of blood a day.
Mfisha nuzzles one of her baby lion cubs at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Friday, March 29, 2013.
W.W. Laird says a final goodbye to a pair of lion cubs on Sept. 21, 1967. When the Clyde Brothers Circus came to Hastings, W.W. Laird, a friend of circus man Howarad Suesz, noticed a sick lion. She took it to the vet, but the animal died. Suesz asked Laird to take the 5-week-old lion cubs, Freckles and Speckles, to make sure they didn't get sick. The cubs became too large to be in the Lairds' home, so Laird donated the cats, then 4 1/2 months old, to the Henry Doorly Zoo.
Nicole Linafelter holds a sleepy African lion cub at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Friday, Jan. 4, 2012. The runt of the litter, the cub had been removed from her mother's care, and Linafelter, a veterinary technician, was one of the people caring for the then-week-old cub.
A male African lion is seen at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
A klipspringer calf roams its new home at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium's Desert Dome on Monday, March 25, 2013.
A white-handed gibbon baby peeks out at its surroundings while its mom swings along at the Lied Jungle at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Oct. 24, 2003. The baby was born Sunday, October 5. Gibbons, the smallest of the apes, live in small family groups consisting of the mated pair and their immature offspring.
Zoo visitors crowd around an exhibit to see a baby gorilla at the Henry Doorly Zoo in 1996.
Sepilok, a Bornean orangutan, holds her baby at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014.
Swans swim through the steam rising off their heated pond at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Dec. 15, 2009.
A lined day gecko sits on a branch in the new Madagascar exhibit at the Henry Doorly Zoo on April 29, 2010.
A female Amur tiger cub, born June 22, 2010, is seen at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Aug. 20, 2010.
A baby male Francois langur, born August 11, 2010, is seen on Oct. 15, 2010, at the Henry Doorly Zoo.
Matt Simon holds up his 2-year-old son, Simon, to get a better view of Wgasa, a Bornean orangutan, as he enjoys a Valentine's Day treat at the Henry Doorly Zoo Tuesday Feb. 14, 2012. Zoo employees put treats out for the animals, including heart-shaped frozen Kool-Aid.
Fish swim at the redesigned and newly renovated Scott Aquarium at the Henry Doorly Zoo on March 26, 2012.
When Penelope, a pink Yorkshire hog, takes a dip in the water tank at the Henry Doorly Zoo, there's no doubt that the other animals have to wait their turn. Watching an impatient Rasputin the goat are Mr. and Mrs. Jeome Paulsen and their 1 1/2-year-old daughter, Jennifer, in August of 1969.
West Coast sea nettles float in the water at the new Ocean Drifters exhibit, which features five species of jellyfish, at the redesigned and newly renovated Scott Aquarium at the Henry Doorly Zoo on March 26, 2012.
Penguins jump in and out of the water at the redesigned and newly renovated Scott Aquarium at the Henry Doorly Zoo on March 26, 2012.
Preston, an Amur leopard, shows his fangs while in his exhibit at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Oct. 19, 2012.
A female Amur tiger, born June 22, 2010, tries to sneak up on her mother Tiksi at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Aug. 20, 2010.
A pygmy hippopotamus calf, born Feb. 22, 2013, is seen with its mother in the Lied Jungle at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Thursday April 18, 2013.
A fossa pup does target training with Ryan Sears, supervisor at Expedition Madagascar, at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Thursday April 25, 2013.
Chimps Tamba, left, and Pedro are seen at the zoo in 1959. Pedro was purchased from the Detroit Zoo as a mate for Tamba in 1958. The mischievous chimps got on well; the two were known to break into cages and let the other monkeys out.
A mountain chicken frog is seen at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.
A young gray tree frog, native to Omaha, is shown at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.
An adult male South African bullfrog is seen at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.