Jackson taxpayers stuck with paying zoo’s water bill

By ANTHONY WARREN,

After learning that Jackson taxpayers will be on the hook for repaying $350,000 in bond money misspent by the Jackson Zoological Society, the capital city’s tax base will now be on the hook for at least a million dollars more in zoo water fees.

So far this year, the zoo has racked up $1,042,000 in water usage fees.

Since the society, the group that manages the Jackson Zoological Park, can’t repay nearly $350,000 in bonds, it is fair to say that the zoo also can’t pay its water bill, according to city officials.

“It’s probably something the city will have to pay,” Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine said. “They receive a bill just like any other customer in the city and are well behind.”

To put the zoo’s current water bill into perspective, to pay this year’s amount, each of Jackson’s 53,000 water ratepayers would have to cough up an extra $19.66.

The amount actually owed by the zoo, though, could be much higher, according to Public Works Director Robert Miller.

Miller was still verifying figures at press time but estimated that the zoo’s outstanding unpaid balance could be “several million dollars.”

Jackson recently announced that it would be cutting service for individuals who did not pay or refused to set up a payment plan to retire delinquent amounts.

Even so, Blaine said the administration will not be cutting the zoo’s service.

“They will not be a candidate for water shutoff,” he said. “Any debt the zoo has the city has to backstop. That would be true of their bonding capacity as well as their water bills.”

The zoo is owned by the city but managed by the zoological society. Under provisions of the contract, if the society is done away with, or cannot pay its bills, the city is responsible for taking on the costs.

Ironically, Jackson is now having to repay hundreds of thousands of bond dollars that would have helped lower the park’s water fees.

Recently, former zoo Executive Director Beth Poff resigned after she admitted to using bond proceeds to pay for zoo operations.

 

In response, the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) demanded that the remaining bond dollars be repaid by November 16.

Since 1995, the state has awarded the society $8.8 million in bonds to help it pay for structural improvements at the century-old park. In other words, the funds were designed to replace broken pipes and fix leaky exhibits.

In 2016, for instance, the Mississippi Legislature authorized lending the society $200,000 to repair the moat around the chimpanzee exhibit.

The leak, though, was never repaired, as bond money was used to cover payroll and day-to-day operations.

The chimps are located on an island in the zoo’s African Rainforest area. The animals can’t swim, and the moat serves as an effective barrier between chimpanzees and guests.  

Because of the leak, though, the moat must constantly be refilled, causing water fees for the park to skyrocket.

Interim Executive Director Dave Wetzel couldn’t be reached for comment.