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Columbus Zoo Levy: Franklin County Or Delaware County Issue
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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.
Why Franklin County?
Many Franklin County voters are like Debbie Weakley – they have a simple question – why are they paying for something in a different county?
“And I do not understand why it’s only being proposed to Franklin County,” Weakley said. “I don’t know that. I don’t understand. It doesn’t seem fair. Delaware, there’s just too many counties that enjoy that zoo and we’re going to be asked to pay for it.”
It’s a good question because while Franklin County property owners pay taxes for the zoo – the zoo’s 588-acre campus does not lie in Franklin County. It’s in Delaware County, on a sliver of Columbus that sits north of the county line.
Zoo Director Emeritus, Jack Hanna, says he understands the voter concern.
“I don’t blame the voters for asking that question,” Hanna said.
So if the zoo sits in Delaware county, why don’t Delaware county taxpayers help pay for it?
The simple answer is – they can’t. State law does not allow it.
State law bars the Columbus Zoo, or any zoo, from asking for a multi-county tax levy. Any property tax request is limited to the county that actually operates or contracts with a non-profit zoo.
Franklin County and Columbus operate the zoo so the tax request can only go to Franklin County voters.
That does not stop opponents of the zoo levy from asking the tax burden be shared.
“The fact that it’s located in Delaware. They enjoy the sales taxes that come off of there.Â They can enjoy the local income taxes depending upon what township that goes through,” said Dan McCormick, who heads the group Citizens for Responsible Taxation.Â ”There are some benefits certainly to them.”
A Franklin County issue
But Gary Merrell, president of the Delaware County commission said that argument is disingenuous.
“If you’re trying to get something to fail, if you can somehow restate the issue it may help you in your efforts to garner votes,” Merrell said. “It’s really a Franklin County issue but I think those who are opposed to the levy are just simply trying to develop an argument so out Delaware county in the middle of that.”
Merrell says most of the economic benefit from zoo operations goes to Franklin County, not Delaware County.
“Obviously, it’s branded as the Columbus Zoo. It’s great for Columbus because it really draws attention internationally as well as nationally,” Merrell said.
Delaware county does receive some sales tax revenue from concession sales at the zoo but those figures are not itemized. Zoo financial statements indicate Delaware county collects about $100,000 dollars a year in sales taxes on zoo concessions. Zoo workers do not pay income tax. Even though the City of Columbus owns the zoo land, it was never formally annexed.
Delaware County bears some zoo-related costs.
Zoo levy campaign chair, John Kulewicz adds that Delaware county residents do share in paying for the zoo.
“What I want to say to that is that Delaware county is providing all of the fire services for the zoo, all of the EMS service for the zoo, all of the police and sheriff protection for the zoo, keeping up the roadways,” Kulewicz said.
Merrell adds Delaware County can’t collect property taxes on all that land because the zoo is a non-profit.
“There’s no property taxes on the golf course, there’s no property tax on the zoo so there are costs to Delaware County,” Merrell said.
The zoo levy campaign figures Delaware County loses about $7.5 million a year in property taxes because it cannot tax zoo land.