Urban Politics #223: Council Supports Zoo Garage


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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COUNCIL VOTES AGAINST ASKING QUESTIONS ABOUT THE ZOO GARAGE

Today (11/7/06) in Budget Committee, the Council voted 5 to 3 (Clark, Conlin, Licata), with one abstention (Della) against a request that the Director of the Department of Finance (DOF) conduct a review of the financial impacts of the proposed Woodland Park Zoo garage and the specific obligations of both the City and the Woodland Park Zoo Society (WPZS). The DOF Director was to report back to the Council by January 15, 2007 and had agreed that he could meet that deadline.

The vote was a rejection of a Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) which is a Council request to a City Department for information on a particular topic. In this instance the SLI, sponsored by Councilmembers Sally Clark, Richard Conlin, David Della and Nick Licata, stated that the Council is interested in understanding whether the assumptions that were originally used in assessing the City’s and Woodland Park Zoo Society’s potential financial liabilities are still valid. The questions that the Council was to ask are listed below.

However, Zoo Director Deborah Jensen called a number of Councilmembers immediately before the Budget Committee Meeting. In response, Councilmembers were concerned that the Council formally asking DOF to answer their questions about the financial viability of the Zoo Garage would be interpreted by the Zoo Society as anti-Zoo and a possible rejection of prior legislation approving the construction of the garage by the Council. There was also concern that the Zoo Society had not been invited to answer the questions in advance. And there was even some thought expressed that since the Council had already voted to help fund the garage it was too late to discover any more information, particularly if it was bad.

I sponsored the SLI after meeting with some neighborhood leaders bordering the Zoo who had obtained some documents that had not previously been shared with the Council. They showed that the City and the Zoo Society did not have a clear plan on how the public subsidies to pay off the multi-million dollar garage would impact the Zoo and the City’s general fund. A statement from the DOF Director stated, “We recognize that there is considerable uncertainty about the timing of garage construction and about parking demand and revenue. We will likely have to adjust the 2008 Budget in mid-2007 as we learn more.”

I told the community people that the Council had already voted to submit bonds for the construction of the garage and that the Zoo Society was one of the best organized groups in the city. They could easily flood the City Council with emails if they felt that the Council was reneging on its prior commitment. In response they said that they had met with just about every Councilmember and said that most of them had expressed grave concerns about the assumptions underlying the financing of the Zoo Garage.

So I said if that was the case I would submit legislation asking the Council to look into any financing problems in a manner that did not stop or delay the issuing of the zoo garage bonds. That was the best I could do to help the City and the Zoo Society avoid a potential financial drag on either of their budgets. Unfortunately, the legislation was cast, as I feared it would be, as anti-Zoo.

After the legislation was defeated, it was suggested by some Councilmembers that the Council should write a letter to DOF and the Zoo Society asking them to provide information on the garage. Councilmember David Della, who chairs the Council’s Park Committee has said he will head that effort. It may result in collecting the same information requested but I believe the message that is being sent by the Council in rejecting the formal request is that the majority of the Council is not interested in revisiting this issue in any detail. Subsequently, it appears to me that the Zoo Garage, for better or worse, will be built and the Council is prepared to provide a public subsidy for it no matter what the ultimate cost.

If you would like to view the meeting, it can be viewed on the Seattle Channel website at http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos/video.asp?ID=2060645. It is the first item in the broadcast.

 

QUESTIONS THAT WERE TO BE ASKED

Have changes in WPZS policies with regard to admissions prices and parking fees (including fee exemptions for some visitors) altered the likely stream of net garage revenues? Council is interested in understanding the specific changes that have been made to the original pro forma for the garage.

Do the forecasts of future annual attendance appear sound in light of recent attendance trends?

Do the forecasts of mode split (automobile versus other methods) for Zoo attendance appear reasonable, particularly in light of the WPZS’s obligation to encourage alternative transportation methods?

What progress has been made in establishing a Residential Parking Zone (RPZ)?

How will the presence or lack of an RPZ affect projected net revenues at the garage?

What are the current cost estimates for the garage and associated mitigation, including a new traffic signal, and do they include the costs associated with having 15% of the construction performed by apprentices, as called for the in management agreement?

If the current cost estimates or final bid price for the garage exceed the amount of financing to be provided by the City, how does the WPZS intend to finance and fund the remaining share?

What potential financial liabilities are created by the garage for the WPZS and how large are these liabilities relative to their other revenue streams? (Could the garage become a significant financial burden to the WPZS?)

Beyond the garage, what on-going and anticipated financial obligations does the City have to the WPZS?

What are the potential financial implications for the City of re-assuming responsibility for the on-going management and operation of the Woodland Park Zoo? (This last question was submitted by DOF, not the Councilmembers).

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