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City Council Delays Zoo Fee Decision

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Mayor Richard Berry’s administration made its pitch to the City Council on Monday for a $3 increase in the basic admission price at the BioPark.

But the idea got a rather cold reception from city councilors, who pointedly questioned the administration about how it handled the increase and whether it was the best option available. Ultimately, the council postponed a decision for two weeks.

City Councilor Ken Sanchez said the fee hike “in this economy is just way too high.” He and Councilor Debbie O’Malley are proposing to roll back the increase to only $1.

Dan Lewis, chairman of the council budget committee, asked why the administration made the increase last month, rather than waiting for the next budget cycle.

He said after the meeting that he’s “skeptical of any fee increase” but will look at the city’s options.

John Soladay, Albuquerque’s chief operations officer, said the fee hike was needed immediately because the bond money that funded crews at the BioPark was about to run out. The increase was recommended by a task force that reviewed upkeep at the zoo, aquarium and other parts of the Biological Park, he said.

The administration originally contended it didn’t need council approval for the fee increase, which boosted the basic adult admission price from $7 to $10. But it now says a council appropriation is necessary to spend the money.

Soladay said there’s an $18 million backlog in work needed at the BioPark, and the fee hike will help avoid layoffs.

“Absolutely nobody wants to raise fees,” Soladay told councilors. But “even with this fee increase, we are still competitively priced when you look at what other zoos cost.”

The BioPark also plans to hold “half-off” events four times a year, he said.

At least a half-dozen BioPark supporters, including zookeepers, turned out to speak in favor of the fee increase, which they said was necessary to ensure the zoo and other facilities get the maintenance and repairs they need.

Councilor Isaac Benton broached the idea of charging out-of-town visitors a higher fee to enter the BioPark than city residents.

In any case, Soladay said the $3 fee increase would raise about $1.3 million a year — enough to cover the salaries of about two dozen maintenance staffers and the supplies they need.

The crew had been paid with general-obligation bond money approved by voters, city officials said. But the BioPark has been getting so little in recent bond cycles, as other city needs compete for the money, that the funds will run out.

Sanchez and O’Malley suggested that in lieu of a full $3 increase, the city could tap into some capital money available in the operating budget as a way to pay for the crews this year.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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