City could be responsible for paying misused funds

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Local taxpayers will likely be on the hook for repaying $350,000 in state bonds that were misused by leaders of the Jackson Zoological Park.

Recently, zoo Executive Director Beth Poff resigned after allegations arose she had misused state bond money to make payroll.

The state is demanding that the funds are repaid and are giving the zoo until November 16 to pay it.

Jackson Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine said the city will likely have to repay the amount, saying the zoo doesn’t have the funds to do it.

“We have some resources to put toward it,” he said. “It’s just an unfortunate consequence of mismanagement.”

In a letter dated August 9, the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) demanded that the zoo repay $350,000 in general obligation bond funds, after Poff admitted to using the proceeds to make payroll.

The state issued $1.2 million in bonds to the Jackson Zoological Society in 2015 and 2016 to cover structural improvements at the park. About $350,000 in those proceeds had not been spent.

“It is apparent that the Jackson Zoo is in violation of the … authorizing legislation regarding the bonds. For this reason, the DFA requests that the Jackson Zoo repay the misappropriated funds, and return any and all unexpended bond proceeds to the state.” DFA Executive Director Laura Jackson said.

Additionally, the agency is requesting a “detailed accounting for all expenses related to the bonds … (and) all invoices and similar documentation for each expense.”

If the November 16 deadline isn’t met, DFA is threatening to refer the matter to the attorney general’s office.

Blaine said the funds will be repaid in addition to the $990,000 the city is expected to give the zoo in the next budget year.

The budget year runs from October 1, 2018 to September 30, 2019.

 

Revelations of bond misuse is more bad news for the society and the park.

In March, the society board voted to study moving the zoo to Northeast Jackson, citing declining revenues and support at its current location.

And last month, local media revealed that employees’ pay had been cut by half to help the zoo make ends meet.

On top of that, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s administration is actively searching for a new management firm to take over zoo management.

The park is located at 2918 W. Capitol St., in an area characterized by blight and high crime. A study conducted by an independent consultant said the zoo’s surroundings have likely contributed to a decline in attendance.

Between 2003 and 2017, annual attendance has fallen from 180,000 to around 100,000.

Since the announcement, attendance and revenues have continued to slip. Through July, attendance was down by about 15,000 year-to-date over 2017.

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