Columbus Zoo Levy: A Move To Permanence

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Zoo employees talk about one of their giraffes.(Photo: Tom Borgerding)
Zoo employees talk about one of their giraffes.(Photo: Tom Borgerding)

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is ranked as one of the nation’s best.  It has grown immensely in the past two decades. Much of that success and growth is thanks to Franklin County taxpayers.

Since the 1980s, the Columbus Zoo has relied heavily on a tax levy to pay for capital projects that helped shoot the zoo to the top.

That levy is up for renewal. And for the first time in recent memory, it has organized opposition as some balk at the size of the increase and its permanence.

A bear at the Columbus zoo in the winter. Photo: Valerie/Flickr Creative Commons

A bear at the Columbus zoo in the winter. Photo: Valerie/Flickr Creative Commons

A History of Levies

Franklin County voters have decided to increase property taxes  for the Columbus Zoo four times. In 1985, 1990, 1994 and 2004  voters easily passed temporary levies for the zoo.

This year the zoo asks voters to approve a new levy – but this one is different. It’s much larger than past levies.

And it’s permanent.

Supporters of the zoo levy rarely, if ever, mention that Issue 6, if approved, would be a permanent. Levy supporters prefer the word “continuing.”  That’s the word that appears on the ballot.

But if voters approve Issue 6 -  the zoo tax increase would be permanent. The tax increase would not expire. No longer would the zoo have to ask for voters to renew a levy.

Columbus Zoo CEO  Tom Stalf says they need a permanent levy for long range planning.

“The thing that we want to make sure everyone realizes is we’re locking in at the 2014 number and we feel that that’s the number that will take us into the future,” Stalf said. “What this does is insure the investment. And we feel that we’ve been investing in the last 29 years and we want to make sure we have the investment into the future.”

New Law Allows Permanence

Up until recently, the zoo was not able to ask for a permanent levy. A new state law approved last fall and that took effect in January allows zoos- and only county controlled  zoos, to ask for permanent property tax increases. The Columbus Zoo is the first zoo in Ohio to seek a permanent tax.

Ohio State law professor Dan Tokaji said state law now treats zoos similar to police and fire departments who can ask for permanent levies.  He said it’s doubtful some voters will understand they’re voting on a permanent levy.

“The research on direct democracy shows that voters, especially with relatively complicated matters like this one often have a very limited idea of what they’re voting on,” Tokaji said. “You know, it’s not because voters are dumb it’s because these laws are often very complicated that we’re asked to vote on.”

A Nicobar pigeon at the Columbus Zoo. Photo: Valerie/Flickr Creative Commons

A Nicobar pigeon at the Columbus Zoo. Photo: Valerie/Flickr Creative Commons

Reduced accountability?

Opponents of the proposed levy increase say the permanency of the levy reduces transparency. In most levies, voters are asked every five to seven years whether to renew it.

“I think that’s part of the checks and balances that’s in the whole process that allows these government entities that are receiving large portions of money from us to continue to work on the benefit of the taxpayers, as well as for the benefit of the community and to be held accountable at some point,” said Dan McCormick, a representative from Citizens for Responsible Taxation. ”The permanency takes that away.”

Stalf denies the permanent levy reduces the zoo’s accountability to voters.

“It does not take that away, what it does is it insures what they have been voting for, the Franklin County voters for the the last 29 years,” Stalf said. “It gives us the opportunity to plan, to know what we’re going to be able to afford to do and how we’re going to improve it. Every single year we present our budgets to the city as well as the county commissioners.”

The zoo’s request represents a 66 percent increase in tax millage. But the cost of the zoo’s portion of a property tax bill would double.

Buyers remorse?

Voters still at some point could reverse a permanent levy, but Tokaji said such buyers remorse would take some effort.

“So yes, voters do have the option of taking it back later on but they would have to organize a petition drive in order to do so,” Tokaji said.

Recall efforts only are allowed every five years and would require thousands of signatures of voters who cast ballots in a previous election.

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