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Lexington County’s zoo funding back to original levels, budget still balanced

Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) – Lexington County’s funding for the Riverbanks Zoo & Botanical Gardens is back where it was before five of the nine councilmembers felt it was necessary to cut the county’s funding of the zoo to provide more money for what some of them called the core functions of government. This was after the funding level creeped up again, and then finally back to 100%, during a special called meeting Monday of the Lexington County Council to approve another reading of the county’s budget for the coming year.

The council had originally said that they would decrease funding for the zoo by about 60%. Where they had funded the zoo to the tune of $1.2 million through millage-based funding before, the council said they would switch to a contributing type funding and cut the zoo’s money from Lexington County to $500,000.

After outrage from zoo’s supporters and a public hearing that was civil but made clear that those who attended felt the zoo was worthy of 100% funding, the council voted to give $750,000 to the zoo in coming years. That number would still be a significant cut of about 40%, but certainly not as painful as the original amount.

Since that vote, the zoo’s staff and supporters spent a great deal of time with council members, especially those who had voted for the cuts. They invited them to the zoo, showed them a true behind the scenes look at the operation, and gave them a clearer picture of what it cost to run the zoo. Monday afternoon, the council first upped the contribution they would provide to $980,000 next year. This is a 25% cut over the $1.2 million and change figure, but something that the zoo’s leaders had said they could get by with for now, according to one member of council. Later during Monday’s meeting, the council changed its collective minds again and returned the zoo’s requested funding to just over the $1.2 million dollars where this all started!

After the meeting, Councilmember Darrell Hudson texted other members of the body and called the efforts by the council to fund the zoo and still balance the budget, “Compromise at its finest.” Council Chairman Scott Whetstone had said last week after the funding was raised to the $750,000, “At this point, we won’t cut anymore, we have a balanced budget.” Whetstone said early Tuesday, "The budget is still balanced and all emergency services will receive eight paid holidays. The zoo is also being funded fully for this year at $1.2 million."

The county council still has one final vote on the budget before it becomes an ordinance that governs Lexington County’s spending next year. That vote is scheduled to take place June 11th.

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