Although Mount Laurel Township Council says reopening Paws Farm is a high priority, tax dollars cannot be committed to pay employees for its ongoing operation.
"I don't gamble with taxpayer money," Deputy Mayor Stephen Steglik told Paws Farm volunteers at Monday's Council meeting. "We're not going to do it on the back of a tax increase."
Steglik stressed that Council remains committed to using the Township-owned property only for Paws Farm. "We're right now trying to find a partnership that will pay for employees to manage it day in and day out."
For nearly a year, Volunteers for Paws Farm Inc. has been refurbishing the 1736 Darnell Homestead, the barn and other buildings and has replaced outdated equipment. About $250,000 has been spent, much of it funded by Dr. Charles Tweedy and his wife, Kate Tweedy, who founded Paws in 1979 and retired from it in 2004.
The Township ran Paws after their retirement and then contracted with the Garden State Discovery Museum of Cherry Hill to take over. The wildlife preserve and petting zoo was abruptly shut down by the museum in February 2020 when it told the Township it could no longer operate the attraction.
Volunteers from Paws were at the meeting to urge the Township to say Paws will reopen on June 1. Dr. Tweedy, a retired pediatrician, told Council members that extracting commitments for large donations to operate Paws was next to impossible without a firm opening date.
"Just comments that, 'Yes, we're dedicated to opening'...that won't hack it when people are writing checks," Tweedy told Council. Specify a reopening date and "then you open up a tremendous flood of fundraising."
The largest obstacle to such a commitment is a decision about who will employ and pay the Paws Farm staff, which had been largely operated by volunteers but would need at least one full-time and two part-time employees, according to Township estimates.
Steglik said they cannot be Township employees and outreach efforts that have approached zoos, animal shelters and corporate givers for sustained support have been fruitless.
Tweedy and other volunteers who spoke at the meeting said admission revenue would support the pay for the employees.
The Tweedys personally contributed most of the $250,000 to get the facility in shape, including buying new heating and other equipment after "long deterioration over a period of time," Tweedy said. He said they have no regrets about spending their money to get it going again.
"People who know us said 'You're gambling on the township to say they are going to open; you put that kind of funds and money and effort and time into it without an ironclad guarantee. You're foolish,' " he told Council. "I said, well everybody has a passion and this happens to be one of ours."
Volunteers, who have worked on the property since last May, said they could not understand why Mount Laurel would not commit to a date.
"The house is pristine, the property is pristine," said Township resident Anne Rosenberg, one of the volunteers and a board member of the volunteer nonprofit organization.
"Now we're faced with a situation where the facility has been impeccably fixed. It's perfect. It's ready to go," she said.
Gloria Stevens, a volunteer and Township resident, said the Township supports other community endeavors, such as athletic teams that use fields owned and maintained by the Township.
"The financial commitment for Paws is so small compared to some of the other things that this Township does. And I don't understand what the problem is. It should be done. ...It should be supported by the Township," said Stevens, who is with the Mount Laurel Garden Club and has developed the Butterfly Garden at Paws Farm.
When Paws Farm shut down two years ago, new homes had to be found for the 180 animals, birds and reptiles. Dr. Tweedy said that number of animals was too large for Paws to maintain and that a newly opened Paws should have only about 50 creatures, the number kept when the Tweedys ran the center.
Steglik said the Township has no other plans for the facility.
But, Steglik said, "I want a sure thing."
"I want it to be a gem for a long time. I want to do it the right way," he added.