Staff Reduced as Attendance Drops at Zoo : Attractions: After three banner years, new financial realities force the elimination of 69 jobs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with declining attendance and rising costs, the San Diego Zoo announced Monday the biggest work-force reduction in its history, eliminating 69 positions that, combined with other budget cutbacks, will save the zoo about $6.25 million next year.

"We need to do more with less," said zoo spokesman Jeff Jouett. "Someone said it's like making more music with fewer violins."

Faced with gloomy financial numbers, zoo officials had been looking to cut costs. At the end of September, the zoo offered longtime employees early retirement, a package enhanced with benefits. The rest of its work force was notified of possible further job reductions.

At the end of October, 48 workers opted for early retirement, Jouett said. Thirty-one of those retirees won't be replaced, he said.

But that wasn't enough. On Monday, the zoo eliminated 38 more positions, laying off 36 people. Two positions were vacant.

The cutbacks may still not be enough. On Nov. 28, Zoological Society trustees will meet to discuss the zoo's budget for the coming year, and there is a possibility that admission prices, which have not gone up for at least two years, may be increased.

"We can't guarantee there won't be an admission increase," Jouett said, explaining that the combination of layoffs, early retirements and budget cuts is viewed as a way of moderating the pressure for higher admission fees.

Until this year, the zoo was coming off three years of peak attendance, a pattern started in 1986, when it attracted 3.4 million visitors to its yearlong 70th birthday celebration. That was followed the next year by the giant panda exhibit. With that lure, 3.8 million people visited the zoo. And, last year, 3.7 million went through the turnstiles as the pandas ended their stay, and the zoo opened its newest project in a decade, the much-publicized Tiger River.

This year's attendance has dwindled to 1985 levels, partly because the zoo's newest exhibit, Sun Bear Forest, did not open until July and has not drawn the crowds that the previous new exhibits did, zoo officials say. With less than two months left in the year, they are projecting 3.3 million visitors for 1989, a decline of 400,000 from a year ago.

And the projection for 1990--again without any new attractions--is the same, 3.3 million. Meanwhile, annual attendance at the zoo's Wild Animal Park in Escondido has been flat--at 1.1 million to 1.2 million--for five years, and next year promises more of the same, according to projections.

"We've hit an attendance plateau, and our revenues are very tied to attendance," said Jouett, noting that 79% of the zoo's revenue is derived from people who buy tickets, food and merchandise at the zoo and Wild Animal Park. Zoo officials aren't counting on any attendance increases until at least 1991, when a new gorilla exhibit is scheduled to open.

In 1987 and 1988, when attendance was at its height, annual revenue at the zoo topped $70 million, led by a record-breaking $72 million two years ago. Although revenue projections for this year aren't final, it is clear that the zoo will take in substantially less than in '87 and '88.

Most of the people laid off are supervisors, Jouett said. Their length of employment at the zoo ranges from four months to 15 years, and includes one department head. About half belong to Teamsters Union Local 481 and, depending on the position, will have bumping rights based on seniority. The only workers apparently immune from the cutbacks are the animal keepers. "But really, it hurts every department at the zoo," Jouett said.

The savings from the layoffs and early retirements is expected to reach about $2.25 million. The zoo still will employ about 1,378 full-time and part-time workers.

Combined with the $2.25-million reduction will be another $4 million in budget cutbacks. Jouett said those involved in drafting budgets have been told to reduce their 1990 requests to the pre-giant panda days of 1987.

Bill Martin, secretary-treasurer of Local 481, said Monday that his union doesn't know which of its employees were laid off but should find out today. Because of what it had been told by the zoo, the union had expected some cutbacks. Martin agreed with Jouett in saying that the layoffs and early retirements were the biggest to ever hit the zoo at one time.

Jouett said the cost of adult tickets--$8.50 at the zoo and $12.95 at the Wild Animal Park--has remained the same for two years, and children's admission--$2.50 at the zoo and $6.20 at the Wild Animal--has not changed for five years.

Although employees taking early retirement won't officially leave until the end of the year, the layoffs are effective immediately. The Zoological Society has hired the firm of Drake Beam Morin to help discharged workers find new jobs.

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