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Council chairman says Lexington County Council will up funding commitment for Riverbanks Zoo, public

Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) – The Lexington County Council upped their financial commitment to the Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Gardens during a budget workshop Tuesday. They did not return the level of funding to 100% of what they were doing in the past. The council voted several weeks ago to substantially cut the money they provided to the popular destination for tourist and locals.

In the past, the zoo’s funding was based on millage. They received $1.2 million last year. The council recently voted to switch the way they support the zoo. Originally, they were set to drop their contribution to the zoo’s budget to $500,000 in the county’s 2019/2020 budget. Supporters of the zoo quickly showed their anger regarding the funding cut. They openly displayed their disappointment in the news, on social media, by e-mail, and with phone calls to the councilmembers who voted for the reduction.

County Council Chairman Scott Whetstone said Tuesday afternoon that the council had voted to up their commitment for the coming year an extra $250,000. This would mean that Lexington County would send Riverbanks a total of $750,000 next year if the budget passes and becomes law. It still required a public hearing that was held Tuesday evening, then a several additional readings before next year’s budget becomes an ordinance.

The zoo's management and supporters had warned of dire consequences if Lexington County went ahead with cuts as severe as first approved. They spoke of possible layoffs, eliminating free admission days, and charging Lexington County school children for admission on field trips.

After the councils' Tuesday’s workshop and their regular meeting, the zoo’s supporters spoke to the county council requesting that they reconsider and provide full funding for Riverbanks now and in the future. Many were zoo employees. They spoke of what the zoo meant to them and the community. Satch Krantz, the retired zoo director who had served 40 years, was in attendance as was an employee who worked under Krantz all those years. That employee said he’d served there 42-years and had seen the zoo change. He had witnessed an unimaginable number of children come, visit, laugh, and learn. He implied the zoo was more like home than a place to work.

A retired US marine who suffers from PTSD described the zoo as his haven, a place where he and his service dog are welcomed by a kind and caring staff. To him, visiting the zoo is therapy. His voice broke as he spoke to the council about how important the zoo was to him.

A woman from Stuttgart, Germany said she had taken her mother to the zoo when she came to America for a visit. They had learned so much; The zoo refreshed and rejuvenated her as they both enjoyed its experience. To her, the zoo’s impact is international. All these speakers implored the council not to cut zoo funding at all.

Jerry Howard, a former councilmember who served on county council 16 years, went to the podium and addressed the council. Howard reminded the council that the citizens of the county had voted in a referendum to support the zoo, and that was done through millage from the beginning. Howard said that based on that referendum, a commitment was made to support the zoo fully. Howard likes seeing a line item on county resident’s tax bills showing support for the zoo.

Finally, current councilman Glen Conwell spoke. He said he had visited the zoo and seen its operation behind the scene. He had also learned and personally witnessed the benefit the zoo had on the area. The Botanical Garden and Waterfall Junction are in his district in West Columbia. Conwell has said that the economy of the area is made stronger by the zoo and he feels full funding for it is the right thing to do. He asked that the full council reconsider their decision and return 100% funding to Riverbanks Zoo before the budget is passed this year.

After the meeting concluded, County Council Chairman Scott Whetstone said. “There won’t be any other cuts, we have a balanced budget. The Lexington County Council recognizes the positive economic and educational impact the Riverbanks Zoo has on our citizens. We hope that this compromise will help people to understand that we are committed to the zoo, but we are also committed to the core functions of our government. In our case, that's public safety, law enforcement, and public works. We will continue to look for savings wherever we can to stay focused on providing those services." Whetstone did say by telephone late Tuesday that more positive changes are possible. He indicated that nothing in the budget is final until its been signed next month.

There will be several more opportunities for the council to reconsider the funding cuts before the final reading and passage of the budget.

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