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Columbus Zoo Levy: Governance
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The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is ranked as one of the nationâ€™s best.Â 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.
Who runs the zoo?
The Columbus Zooâ€™s request for a large and permanent property tax increase has prompted a closer look at how itâ€™s run.Â Â The zoo is funded through a mix of tax dollars, private donations, admission fees and concessions revenue.
Like all non-profits, some of its books are open, but unlike government agencies the zoo is not completely transparent.
First letâ€™s start with who runs The Columbus Zoological Parks Association â€“ the legal name for the Columbus Zoo. The Zooâ€™s governance structure is complicated.
Unlike most non-profits it has two governing boards.
One oversees the zooâ€™s operations. It has 22 members.
The other board oversees how the zoo spends its property tax money. It has 18 members â€“ some appointed by the city, some by the county and some by that other zoo board.
Zoo CEO Tom Stalf answers to both.
â€œWe present to the board, and those representatives from the city, the county and the non-profit all work together to approve our budgets, and our expansion and our enhancements,â€ Stalf said.
The two boards hold joint open meetings. And the public can also request the meetingsâ€™ minutes.
As a non-profit â€“ it must file a detailedÂ publicÂ federal tax form called the 990.
But becauseÂ theÂ zoo is a private, non-profit corporation, itâ€™s exempt from the stateâ€™s public records laws.
For example – unlike government agencies, the zoo does not have to release personnel records. Two years ago when the zooâ€™s former CEO Dale Schmidt left abruptly, the zoo denied WOSUâ€™s request for documents related to his resignation.
The zoo would only say Schmidt left for personal reasons. Tax forms filed a year later show the zoo paid Schmidt a $250,000 severance.
Current zoo CEO Stalf says some matters, such as personnel issues or even bidding processes, will not be shared with the public for proprietary business reasons.
But he maintains the zoo is transparent.Â Public records are on the zooâ€™s website.
â€œAs far as looking at our 990s, theyâ€™re accessible on our website,” Stalf said. “You can just go to columbuszoo.org and look at the information. You can see my salary. You can see what weâ€™re spending and how weâ€™re spending it.â€
We wanted to compare the zooâ€™s transparency to other non-profits.
The group Charity Navigator evaluates the practices of non-profits.. Charity Navitator vice president Joanne Reisser gives the zoo high marks.
â€œColumbus Zoo gets a perfect score,â€ Reisser said.
In 2008, Reisser says the IRS revamped the 990 form to require more information, in a sense, forcing non-profits to be more transparent.
But she adds not-for-profits are not obligated to open up personnel files. In some cases, Reisser says, doing so could open them up to legal action.
â€œShort of there being legal issues,” Reisser said. “The zoo is under no obligation to disclose anything.â€
How money is spent
As for how the zoo spends its money â€“ its balance sheet is detailed on that 990- tax form.
Over the past three years, the zooâ€™s revenues and expenses both roseâ€¦ with expenses rising slightly more than revenues. It still ended 2012 in the black.
The zooâ€™s largest expense â€“ $17 million â€“Â is salaries.
It spent $1 million on marketing, $1.5 million on maintenance,Â nearly $1 million to feed the animals. The zoo spends a lot on travel â€“Â $350,000 â€“ but its workers do have to travel to far off places like Asia for pandas or Amsterdam for monkeys.
Does levy money pay for all of this? The short answer is yes. Stalf says 15 percent of levy money goes to operations.
â€œWe have had 29 years of fiscally responsible organization,â€ Stalf said.
Levy opponents point to the salaries of top zoo employees, more specifically, their raises.
So we looked at what the zooâ€™s top paid employees make.
According to the most recently available 990 form, Stalf makes $235,000. Jack Hannah, makes $301,000. Other top employeesâ€™ salaries exceed $200,000.
â€œWe would have no problem with anyoneâ€™s compensation package if theyâ€™re getting paid what the market dictates,” said Dan McCormick, who works with Citizens for Responsible Taxation.Â ”Over the last four years theyâ€™ve given out wage increases of 25 percent where most people are getting 3 percent, which is way out of line with the local economy.â€
Raises more than market value?
We looked at their raises. Top earners, inÂ 2011, saw raises from 8 percent to 34 percent. But the next year, raises were lower, between 3 and 14 percent.
While these wage increase seem large, theyâ€™re not as generous as those of other non-profit zoos.
The median raise at three of the countryâ€™s biggest non-profit zoos in 2012 – San Diego, Chicago and Philadelphia – was 20 percent.
The bottom line: zoos are big complicated businesses â€“ and Franklin County voters are getting a chance to say how theirs is run.