Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Zoo pays back improper expenses


$13,000 returned in wake of audit

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Cincinnati Zoo has reimbursed Hamilton County taxpayers more than $13,000 after an audit found officials used public money for lunches at Hooters, undocumented trips around the world and gifts for foreign dignitaries visiting the zoo.

        Those revelations came after county auditors looked at eight months of records during 1999 and 2000.

        County officials have told the zoo it has 90 days to go through all its records for those years and pay back any other inappropriate expenses footed by the countywide zoo tax.

        After that, the county will finish its audit. The county also will begin auditing the zoo's levy expenses every month from now on.

        “Asking taxpayers to pay for lunch at Hooters just isn't acceptable,” Commissioner Tom Neyer said when told of the audit's findings on Monday.

        The tax, approved by voters in 1998, generates a little over $6 million a year. The money is supposed to be spent on animal health, horticulture and zoo maintenance.

        But the audit found inappropriate uses or insufficient documentation for expenses. Some examples:

        • More than $785 for meals at Hooters, Wendy's, Thai Cafe and Mayura restaurants. Zoo officials also bought gifts from Thorn Tree Gift Shop for visitors.

        “The Cincinnati Zoo has a number of endangered species on loan from foreign countries,” Jack Huelsman, the zoo's associate director, wrote to county officials. “It is customary practice in the international zoo community to provide meals and token gifts.”

        County officials say the zoo needs to pay for those meals and gifts out of its own budget.

        • Four trips, costing $3,450, for which the purpose was undocumented. The zoo said a New York trip was for training at the Bronx Zoo; a Houston trip was associated with manatee care; a Malaysia trip was to study Sumatran rhinos; and another was for an animal care conference in Orlando.

        Corresponding records for those trips did not say what they were for.

        • More than $4,300 to buy mice. There were no invoices for the purchase, which was made out of petty cash.

        “We asked why they were paying for the mice in cash,” county Budget Director Suzanne Burke said.

        Mr. Huelsman said there was no formal, printed invoice for the mice because the zoo buys such large quantities that zoo officials often don't know how many are in a shipment until they count them.

        “We have developed relationships with suppliers whom we know and whose product we trust,” Mr. Huelsman said.

        The $13,000 will go back into the zoo levy fund, meaning the zoo can get that money back this year to cover legitimate expenses.

       



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