The Louisiana Legislative Auditor says East Baton Rouge Parish’s parks and recreation system “could do more” when it comes to addressing the improvements and repairs needed to help the Baton Rouge Zoo regain its accreditation status and give the public more insight into the agency’s use of taxpayer money.

State auditors said in a report released Monday that BREC must develop a comprehensive plan for upgrades needed for the Baton Rouge Zoo to meet current standards. In all, auditors made 10 recommendations on how BREC could tighten its operations and oversight.

The state Legislature asked auditors to look into BREC’s efficiency and effectiveness shortly after the park system’s Board of Commissioners decided to keep the zoo at its current location after a plan to move it, backed by then-Superintendent Carolyn McKnight, met a public backlash last year. The audit report arrived just days before the parish’s parks and recreation system unveils its final conceptual master plan and drawings for the Baton Rouge Zoo and the adjacent Greenwood Park.

"We are gratified that the outcome was, as we suspected it would be, mostly recommendations that have already been made by our own internal staff," BREC Superintendent Corey Wilson said a prepared statement BREC released shortly after the audit’s findings were posted. "We welcome scrutiny and are always open to suggestions on how we can improve our services for the citizens of East Baton Rouge Parish."

In an appearance later Monday at the Baton Rouge Press Club, Wilson said attendance and revenues are up at the zoo despite the facility’s recent challenges and said BREC in the process of implementing financial management software that will make its day-to-day operations more transparent.

“This will help us maintain the trust we gained from the public,” Wilson said. “It is my hope that this audit is the last remaining vestige of the passionate debate regarding the location of the zoo. The issue was settled once and for all in March of last year, and we are inviting the community to come together on August 17 … to celebrate the unveiling of the master plan for the Baton Rouge Zoo and work together to make it a reality.”

In their statement Monday, BREC officials noted the agency is now on the hook for the $107,000 it took to pay for the LLA audit, which is why they initially bucked at the idea of having to adhere to it in addition to their annual independent audit, which was also released Monday, for the 2018 fiscal year.

McKnight’s proposal came shortly after the zoo, in March 2018, lost its 40-year-old accreditation status from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The AZA dinged the facility for its antiquated infrastructure, attractions and animal exhibits. The more than 140-acre zoo hasn't been updated much since it opened in the 1970s.

BREC has spent most of this year hosting public meetings to gain community input on enhancements and facility upgrades on possible upgrades to the zoo and Greenwood Park. Final plans for both will be revealed to the public at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Waterfront Theater in Greenwood Park.

During his Press Club appearance, Wilson gave a sneak peek of the final plans, which he said will be a combination of design concepts from the themed drawings that were shown to the public in May. Features included a glass atrium-style entrance he said would include a gift shop, better air conditioning and the zoo’s administrative offices.

Wilson said BREC hopes to break ground on Phase I by at least the fall of next year. He said the agency has about $24 million to $30 million in reserve funds to pay for the initial phase. A bulk of the money for the project will likely have to come from private donations, officials said previously.

State auditors acknowledged BREC’s effort to develop comprehensive plans for its network of parks and the zoo but criticized the parks system for waiting so long to start working on improvement plans for the zoo.

In their evaluation of BREC’s operations, expenditures and contracts between 2013 to 2018, auditors also said:

• Despite BREC establishing cost recovery targets, the parks system can’t properly measure whether its programs meet benchmarks because of limitations with the parks system’s accounting system. “Measuring whether its programs meet cost-recovery targets is important because these targets set a goal for the level of subsidy that should be provided to programs and which programs should charge fees to recover costs,” auditors stated in the report.

• BREC has implemented better oversight for approximately $55 million in capital improvement spending between 2015 through 2018 but did not document or establish consistent criteria on how to prioritize those projects until this year. Doing so would help taxpayers better rationalize and understand how BREC makes its decisions and spends money, auditors noted.

• Despite acknowledging that BREC has developed contracting policies and procedures, auditors said the policies do not mandate that BREC document the need for the agreements prior to their execution. The policies also do not specify how contracts should be monitored. “Because BREC spent $26.3 million on contracts between calendar years 2017 and 2018, it is important that it has a documented process to ensure services are needed and received,” auditors said.

• BREC should strengthen its oversight of the system’s cooperative endeavor agreements with various fundraising foundations and other entities, such as sports leagues, since doing so would specify how BREC is receiving at least an equivalent value in goods and services.

Several of the myriad recommendations overlapped with one another.

In the agency’s prepared response, BREC officials said they agreed with many of the recommendations highlighted in the report but stressed they were already addressing many of the issues they said have were brought up in many of their annual independent audits.

“BREC is unlike most governmental agencies in that we are a public entity that must also function much like a business due to the nature of the services we provide,” Wilson said.

In the list of accomplishments BREC highlighted in its statement, officials noted that the change order rate, 1.4%, for the approximately $100 million in park and facility improvements completed from 2005 to 2014 was significantly lower than the national average of 6.2%. It is a “clear” indication BREC’s Planning and Engineering team tightly manages capital outlay projects despite what state auditors pointed out, Wilson said.

“While managing these projects, the same team is leading efforts to create a GIS system which will enable us to track inventory down to the level of individual park benches and trash cans at all 181 parks in the BREC system, a resiliency plan to enhance the way parks are designed to protect surrounding areas from flood and natural disasters, an ADA transition plan to ensure our parks are accessible to everyone regardless of ability, an update of brand standards for signage in all of our parks and the creation of a parish wide master plan for bike and pedestrian trails,” he said.

Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com