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Columbus Zoo Levy: What Exactly Is It?
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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.
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has 10,000 animals… but what it has even more of is dollars. Specifically, $18 million.
Thatâ€™s how much the Franklin County property tax levy generates each year for the Columbus Zoo. And the zoo counts on it. Itâ€™s nearly a one third of its revenue.
Levies for zoos are normal. About half of all accredited zoos in North America receive some form of public money.Â The current levy runs out Jan. 1, 2016, and zoo officials want voters to approve it again. But this time, the zoo wants more:Â 66 percent more.
How much more?
Next week, voters will decide whether to increase the zoo levy from .75 mills to 1.25 mills.
For property owners, that means the zoo tax bill will increase from $21 to $44 for every $100,000 of value per year.
The new levy would generate about $31 million a year. And like the current one, zoo president and CEO Tom Stalf says the bulk of it would pay for capital projects.
This levy is about maintaining what we have. Itâ€™s really not about growing and getting better. Itâ€™s keeping it great.
While Stalf contends the heftier levy is not about â€œgrowingâ€ the zoo, there are two expansion projects in its 30-year master plan. The Heart of Africa — it will include up-close animal interaction, as well as themed dining. And the South East Asia expansion — it will allow for more space for Orangutans and other Asian species.
There are also 10 major renovations and new features planned, including a tram system, an animal care center, a Jack Hannah hands-on animal exhibit and a Downtown zoo.
The price tag: as much as $753 million.
Stalf says itâ€™s all essential to keep up the zoo. After all, zoos arenâ€™t what they were 30 years ago.
â€œZoos would build an exhibit, for an example, a giraffe. You would get a couple of giraffes. Youâ€™d build a pen, most of the time it was in concrete, youâ€™d put a fence up, and youâ€™d say, â€˜Come see my giraffe,â€™â€ Stalf said.
Stalf says thatâ€™s no longer acceptable. Today, he says, zoos tell stories.
â€œSo when weâ€™re building those regions of the world,” Stalf said. “We want to make sure weâ€™re representing the species and the habitat and the culture correctly.â€
Building it and maintaining it takes lots of money. And the zoo is counting on the levy to help pay for those all of those projects.
In the past, opposition to zoo levies has been minimal.Â Not this time.
Jonathan Beard, working with the group Citizens for Responsible Taxation, said his group is not against the zoo, but against the proposed levy.
â€œWeâ€™d like to see some continued investment there,” Beard said. “Youâ€™ve got to invest to stay ahead. But what we got was kind of a mixed bag that included a whole lot of other things.â€
Other â€œthingsâ€ like a Downtown zoo, which is included in the Scioto Peninsula revitalization project. Beard says itâ€™s excessive.
â€œWhen you throw it all in together, youâ€™re funding bad with good,” Beard said. “OK, so we can support the good on the main campus there in Delaware County, but we should have had a second levy request for a new zoo.â€
The Downtown zoo would cost as much as $65 million. But Stalf says thatâ€™s only aÂ sliverÂ â€“ 9 percent â€“ of what the levy would fund.
â€œThis levy vote is not about downtown,” Stalf said. “Itâ€™s about expanding or improving what we have at the zoo. Itâ€™s not about expansion. Itâ€™s about improving. Itâ€™s about enhancing and continually making our facility great.â€
The other key opposition to the levy: its permanency. Itâ€™s a continuous levy that would lock in the proposed millage indefinitely.
But by locking in a rate, Stalf says an on-going levy ensures the zooâ€™s future.
â€œSo there is no intent to ever go back and ask Franklin County voters for more,” Stalf said. “We feel that the relationship and the partnership that weâ€™ve had is excellent, and we want to ensure that weâ€™re providing excellence into the future.â€
Over 30 years, the proposed levy would generate $930 million.
Tax Burden Out Of The County
And then thereâ€™s the tax burden. Franklin County property owners foot the bill, even though the main zoo is in Delaware County. And for Beard, thatâ€™s a problem.
â€œWhen theyâ€™re talking about a 30-year growth plan this is a great opportunity to rethink the financing structure for the zoo, and certainly that should include a broadened tax base,” Beard said.
Delaware County property owners do not contribute to the tax levy that helps support the zoo. Stalf says thatâ€™s because Delaware County receives very little in sales tax, yet it provides fire and sheriff services. And he adds millions of dollars were forfeited in potential property and sales tax because the zoo is in Powell.
This is part one of a five-part series.
- Part 1: What is the levy?
- Part 2: The Permanent Tax
- Part 3: A Downtown Zoo
- Part 4: A County Issue
- Part 5: Who Runs the Zoo?