THIS GUEST BLOG BY: Joyce Rowley is a Zoological Society member, New Bedford resident and retired community planner.

While we were hunkering down this past spring, I finally received a response to my request for information on the City of New Bedford's "RFI" that was issued last fall.

What's that, you ask?

Most people are totally unaware that the City is planning to outsource operation and maintenance of the Buttonwood Park Zoo to a private organization while keeping the taxpayers on the hook for the cost, plus $24 million in capital improvements. Some people erroneously believe that the Zoological Society already runs it.

The reality is that the Society is trying to take it over, without the public being involved. Whether you agree they should or not, this should not be a backroom deal by the Mayor and City Council. It should be on the ballot in November.

So far the Request for Information (RFI) was quietly posted on the City website. Only the Society answered the RFI last fall. Their response highlights the problem with backroom deals: the Society would have zero accountability to the public or the taxpayers. It would receive annual payments of about $3-4 million a year for the next five years on a 20-year contract which includes capital improvement bond funds from the City taxpayers.

None of the Board members are New Bedford's taxpayers.

Their track record so far is poor. They raised nearly $1 million per year for the past five years, but none of that goes to the animals, zoo staff or maintenance. So where did the millions go?

The Society's Response to the RFI claims that they raised another $2.5 million in private donations that was used to help build the Aquatic Center rehab, a playground in the zoo, and the red panda exhibit. However, they have refused to show exactly how it was spent. The City funded the exhibits under the CIP bond and only used $450,000 private donations for the rehab.

So the playground cost $2 million? Certainly, the panda exhibit did not. It was built by zoo staff. I watched them.

The Society also claims to have three funds established for additional projects but did not provide the fund amounts. Yet when I made public records requests to find out how much they raised, I was told this was a private organization and they refused the requests. I requested the info as a zoological society member and again was refused, which is a violation of their own by-laws.

Why the secrecy?

Buttonwood Park and Buttonwood Park Zoo are public parklands. The transfer of any responsibility to any private organization should not only be public information, but it should go to the voters this fall as a ballot measure first. If the voters agree, it should be bid out as any public project of this magnitude would.

Please tell Mayor Mitchell and the New Bedford City Council to put this on the ballot in November. It's your park and your zoo – and your money.

Editor's Note: 'SouthCoast Voices' is a series of guest blogs from newsmakers across the region, on relevant issues that directly impact the people of Greater New Bedford and the surrounding communities. The opinions are solely those of the author. If you are interested in contributing, please contact tim@wbsm.com for more information. 

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