City leaders update efforts to shift Topeka Zoo to third-party group

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Topeka city officials say they've been working behind the scenes to see what changes are needed to shift control of the Topeka Zoo to a third-party, non-profit organization.

The update from Zoo Director Brendan Wiley, Deputy City Manager Doug Gerber, and City Attorney Lisa Robertson came during Tuesday night's city council meeting.

A public-private partnership would have an organization handle day-to-day operations and employment, in exchange for an annual management fee. The idea has been floated several times over the past decade.

Wiley said Friends of the Topeka Zoo (FOTZ) already handles some areas, like the gift shop and some custodial services. He said FOTZ took on the responsibility of hiring seasonal workers in 2015, and, this year, added the part-time educational staff.

Wiley said the zoo has outsourced as much as it can. He believes the change to a group, like FOTZ, would ensure the zoo's future success.

Gerber and Robertson told the council they've been studying areas that would be impacted or could impact how a change might take place, such as fee restrictions; and forming lists of zoo assets, including property and animals.

Gerber said they've also developed a compensation model for how to transition full-time employees from working for the city, to working for the private group.

Robertson pointed out the process of shifting zoo management to a third-party would likely require several actions by the governing body. For example, several areas of city code deal directly with the zoo. In addition, some zoo employees are covered by bargaining agreements, which would require amending.

Also up for discussion would be the length of any management agreement, and how the financial arrangements would work.

Robertson and Gerber stress they are gathering information. The governing body must decide how to move forward.

Council members asked several questions in nearly an hour of discussion Tuesday night. Several expressed support for continuing study of the move, but the body did not make any decisions.