Governor and mayor growl, and zoo groans

February 11, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- The Baltimore Zoo is so strapped for cash that it has been forced to sell waterfowl to other zoos and can't afford to buy the rhinos, zebras and other animals that would bring alive a new $4 million African watering hole exhibit.

And, while officials say they'll have to take even more drastic steps if they don't get more money, the zoo's future apparently has been thrown into jeopardy by a dispute between the governor and the mayor of Baltimore over the zoo's ownership.

The flap began last month when Gov. William Donald Schaefer announced in his State of the State address that he wants the state to take over ownership of the zoo, a move designed to save the city money.

But Mr. Schaefer not only failed to tell his own staff of the plan, he also neglected to inform Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a breach of protocol that appears to have fueled this latest fight between the two men.

Last week, at a dinner meeting here with the city delegation, the mayor told city lawmakers he had no intention of giving up control of the zoo, according to two lawmakers who were present.

Two nights later, at a private dinner with a small group of legislators at the governor's mansion, Mr. Schaefer made it clear he wants the state to own the zoo and suggested he won't talk about other aid plans for the city until the zoo issue is settled.

Caught in the middle are worried zoo officials, city legislators and the bureaucrats called on to consummate the exchange of ownership.

"I don't care who owns the zoo," said Sen. John A. Pica Jr., D-Baltimore, chairman of the city's Senate delegation. As do many other city lawmakers, he says he can't figure out why a city so desperate for cash would cavalierly turn down a state offer that could save it up to $3 million a year.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, downplayed the dispute,

calling it a "misunderstanding." It was true, he said, that Mr. Schaefer had "very indelicately forgotten to call the mayor up on the phone."

But, he added, "The governor should recognize that if he was the mayor and if [former] Governor [Harry R.] Hughes had called him and said he was taking over the aquarium or other key asset in the city, he probably wouldn't have been as low key about it as the mayor has been."

A spokesman for Mayor Schmoke said yesterday that the mayor hasn't rejected a state takeover, but wants to study it and hold off taking action this legislative session.

But Brian A. Rutledge, the zoo's executive director, met with Mr. Schmoke yesterday and said afterward that "all parties have expressed an interest in resolving this and will be meeting soon to do so."

Mr. Rutledge said city and state officials alike need to recognize the zoo's importance as a major mid-city tourist attraction and peak season employer of over 200 workers with an annual budget of $6 million.

The zoo drew nearly 500,000 visitors each of the past two years, and Mr. Rutledge said it has the potential to draw up to 2,000,000. But he saidttendance last year actually fell slightly from 1990, which he attributed to a loss of momentum.

"Sitting on our hands in a recession is the last thing we should be doing," he said.

But the zoo, like other recipients of state aid, has been hit hard by recent budget cutbacks. A promised $350,000 state subsidy has disappeared.

By now, the new "watering hole" exhibit, some 10 years in planning and construction, was to have been home to rhinos, zebras, ostriches, two species of antelope, pink-backed pelicans, African spoonbills and a variety of other exotic birds.

"But we don't have the money to operate or purchase the animals," Mr. Rutledge said.

The waterfowl, which Mr. Rutledge described as North American ducks, were recently sold to other zoos, he said, in order to save money on labor.

Zoo officials now are deciding what to do if there are additional budget reductions, he said, adding that drastic action is "damned close."

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