An audit of cash-handling procedures at Cameron Park Zoo last year uncovered significant lapses in financial security and policy, including an unfastened safe left visible to hundreds of thousands of visitors.
Findings of the audit, presented to city and zoo officials in April, preceded Jim Fleshman’s resignation as zoo director, and the city and Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society are renegotiating their contract in a way that would strip many operational responsibilities from the nonprofit.
It also appears the tumult at Waco’s second-biggest tourist draw will delay a bond election leaders initially hoped to hold in May on a measure that would pay for expansion of the zoo.
A November bond election is now more likely, Mayor Kyle Deaver and Assistant City Manager Bradley Ford said. Fleshman proposed the election before his resignation and estimated the expansion would be valued at $12.5 million.
The audit found the zoo’s safe was accessible with a single digital code known by multiple employees and was not installed in a secure location. When the auditing firm made a site visit March 21, the safe’s door was not completely closed, according to the audit.
BKD inspected the cash procedures at the zoo’s Plaza Café, Treetop Café, Snack Shack and vending operations. The audit found that cash registers at the zoo were dated and not fully operational. When items could not be scanned in the point-of-sale system, staff would manually enter the price, hurting inventory management.
Employees would also apply their own discretion for personal purchases, leading to lost revenue. Cash counts were not performed, two vending machines were not managed, security cameras were not placed to catch wrongdoing and staffers would not document shift changes for positions tied to cash-handling.
Ford said improvements to the safe, cash register and cameras have been made, and all employees have been trained on how best to handle cash.
“I think that there’s definite opportunities that we saw over this past year to make improvements in our cash-handling procedures, and I think comparatively the risks and observations are important for us to consider and make adjustments so that we can ensure the safety of our employees and also the resources on site,” Ford said.
The audit was prompted when Fleshman alleged money had gone missing after a recently fired employee handled it, an allegation the employee has denied. Vivian Bush was fired March 23 after officials said she falsely claimed she worked on a holiday.
After the former employee was fired, she also accused Fleshman of groping her in February 2017. That allegation was investigated at the time, but it is unclear if it played a role in Fleshman’s forced resignation.
Attempts to reach Bush and Fleshman were unsuccessful.
The Tribune-Herald obtained the audit report under the Texas Public Information Act. Brief portions were redacted to protect security measures at the zoo. The Tribune-Herald first requested the findings from the city in May after Ford confirmed the inquiry. The city, with backing from the state attorney general, denied the request, saying the audit was ongoing.
After the city provided the information in response to a new request last month, Ford said BKD’s inquiry ended last week. The firm continued work during contract negotiations between the city and the zoo society. It will return in the spring, pending approval of a new contract expected to give oversight of the zoo’s finances from the society to the city.
A new zoo director is expected to be hired after the contract is approved. Longtime zoo employee Johnny Binder has served as the interim director.
A contract proposal Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society President Nancy Baird and interim Zoo Director Johnny Binder unveiled last month would limit the society’s roles to fundraising, marketing, corporate partnerships, memberships, facility rentals and conservation efforts.
The city would need to commit to a holding a May bond election by Feb. 15, but Ford said it is unlikely cost projections could be completed by then.
The city council has insisted the city not increase its $2.7 million subsidy to the zoo, which has increased incrementally the past several years.
“The city will always probably have to subsidize the zoo to a certain extent, and it provides such a benefit to our citizens from a quality of life standpoint,” Deaver said. “And it’s an economic development driver from bringing in tourists. I think the council is generally supportive of the zoo and willing to subsidize it to some extent, but we certainly don’t want (the subsidy) to continue to grow.”
Deaver said he hopes BKD’s findings would not break public trust and instead show the city is improving its financial controls.
Baird said the city and the society have developed new partnerships that will ensure success at the zoo.
“The zoo hasn’t skipped a beat,” she said. “We’ve been working really hard to develop this partnership with the city, and we’re excited about the movement.”