Why Bob Dyer is wrong about the Akron Zoo and its levy


I have admired Bob Dyer’s work in the past and his dogged pursuit of the facts for the fine investigative pieces he has done over the years. To arrive at his opinion about the Akron Zoo, however, Bob used his columnist’s license to take the speed ramp to a conclusion without all the facts.

I served on the board of the Akron Zoo for 10 years and raised exactly the same concerns as Bob did in his column. I made the same comparisons. I arrived at a different conclusion after educating myself on all the facts and circumstances.

Comparing salaries paid to the zoo leadership team to City Hall executives fails because the zoo does not share in the generous public contribution the city makes for its employees to the Public Employees Retirement Plan, nor the robust city-provided health care plans.

In a high-level job market that competes for talent and experience, a better comparison is what we pay executives of Akron’s other non-profit organizations. While some directors of non-profits are not well-compensated, the IRS 990’s show that the largest of our non-profits reward their executives handsomely, a comparison that shows that zoo salaries are not out of line.

The best comparison is how zoos that operate in similarly sized communities compensate their executives. A consultant gathers the data, and when viewed objectively, the Akron Zoo does not pay its executives at the highest range, nor the lowest. In between has been about right. I have seen zoo executives at community events on nights and weekends sharing the zoo’s assets with other groups that benefit from its presence.

Dyer criticizes the city subsidies that also support the zoo, but he ignores the history of how that support came to be. The Akron Zoo was a city park until 1979, unaccredited and often disappointing to visitors. There was talk of closing the zoo or moving it. Community leaders formed an organization that prevented it from closing.

There were no public funds available to build or support a new zoo, which today is a fully accredited, nationally regarded animal attraction. As part of the city agreement to stay in the neighborhood and rebuild, the city provided utilities including water, sewer and communications. As the zoo started, earning revenue and pursuing philanthropic donations, with revenue from the levy becoming available, the city’s in-kind support gradually diminished. Under a new agreement executed last year, the zoo will pay 75% of the utilities costs next year and 100% in 2022.

At the same time, the zoo has become a model of environmental stewardship, reducing water use by 80%, an amazing accomplishment that improved neighboring properties by a novel stormwater management plan that dramatically reduced flooding nearby. There is no other organization in the Greater Akron community that has provided the leadership and best environmental practices of the zoo.

Dyer’s criticism of city support does not take into account what the city pays for baseball, softball, basketball and soccer. My family uses none of those activities — but the zoo provides the recreation opportunities that we fully utilize.

The best test is this: Are we getting our money’s worth? As a frequent visitor to the zoo with three grandchildren, I’ve viewed the Akron Zoo as the most accessible of our cultural institutions — it is used on any given day by a diverse population of all income classes. The hundreds of thousands of annual visitors are the best evidence of how much people value the zoo.

This is why I’m voting for Issue 47.

Dave Lieberth is an Akron historian and civic leader. He served as deputy mayor of Akron from 2002-2012.

By: Dave Lieberth - guest colomnist, Akron Beacon Journal

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