Columbus Zoo Levy: What Exactly Is It?

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The front-entrance sign of the Columbus Zoo.(Photo: Tom Borgerding / WOSU)
The front-entrance sign of the Columbus Zoo.(Photo: Tom Borgerding / WOSU)

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.

Kids enjoy the flamingo exhibit at the Columbus Zoo. Photo: WOSU

Kids enjoy the flamingo exhibit at the Columbus Zoo. Photo: WOSU

Current budget

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has 10,000 animals… but what it has even more of is dollars. Specifically, $18 million.

That’s how much the Franklin County property tax levy generates each year for the Columbus Zoo. And the zoo counts on it. It’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. The current levy runs out Jan. 1, 2016, and zoo officials want voters to approve it again. But this time, the zoo wants more: 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. It’s really not about growing and getting better. It’s keeping it great.

Current construction at the Columbus Zoo. Photo: WOSU

Current construction at the Columbus Zoo. Photo: WOSU

Expansion

While Stalf contends the heftier levy is not about “growing” 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 it’s all essential to keep up the zoo. After all, zoos aren’t what they were 30 years ago.

“Zoos would build an exhibit, for an example, a giraffe. You would get a couple of giraffes. You’d build a pen, most of the time it was in concrete, you’d put a fence up, and you’d say, ‘Come see my giraffe,’” Stalf said.

Stalf says that’s no longer acceptable. Today, he says, zoos tell stories.

“So when we’re building those regions of the world,” Stalf said. “We want to make sure we’re representing the species and the habitat and the culture correctly.”

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.  Not this time.

gorillaOpposition to the levy

Jonathan Beard, working with the group Citizens for Responsible Taxation, said his group is not against the zoo, but against the proposed levy.

“We’d like to see some continued investment there,” Beard said. “You’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.”

Other “things” like a Downtown zoo, which is included in the Scioto Peninsula revitalization project. Beard says it’s excessive.

“When you throw it all in together, you’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.”

The Downtown zoo would cost as much as $65 million. But Stalf says that’s only a sliver – 9 percent – of what the levy would fund.

“This levy vote is not about downtown,” Stalf said. “It’s about expanding or improving what we have at the zoo. It’s not about expansion. It’s about improving. It’s about enhancing and continually making our facility great.”

The other key opposition to the levy: its permanency. It’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 zoo’s future.

“So 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 we’ve had is excellent, and we want to ensure that we’re providing excellence into the future.”

Over 30 years, the proposed levy would generate $930 million.

Tax Burden Out Of The County

And then there’s the tax burden. Franklin County property owners foot the bill, even though the main zoo is in Delaware County. And for Beard, that’s a problem.

“When they’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 that’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.

Comments
  • Barb R.

    Passage of the zoo levy means our property taxes will increase by 12.5%. This is because Gov. Kasich inserted into his budget in 2013: passage of any new levy that is linked to our property taxes means we lose the current 12.5%
    rollback. So the cost of passage of this levy is more than an increase from $21
    to $44 per $100,000 value of a home. In my case, loss of the entire rollback
    means I will have to pay more than $800 in property taxes! A 12.5% tax increase is unacceptable! Renters will also be hurting as landlords will pass the 12.5% tax increase on to them! I urge OSU Public Radio reporters to cover this part of the story. Barb R

    • Charlie

      You don’t lose the entire rollback, just the portion on the zoo tax. That’s why a 66% increase becomes approximately a doubling of the ZOO TAX ONLY. The increase from $21 to $44 per $100k is the entire story. This is NOT a 12.5% tax increase.

  • Concerned Republican

    Barb R. of Americans for Prosperity,

    It is a complete and utter fiction that this tax affects anything other than the zoo tax.
    Thanks,
    A concerned Republican

  • Chickpea

    Part of me supports the zoo levy. We have a world class zoo and should be proud of it. Another part of me, the part of me that can not afford to go to the zoo, opposes it. It costs 15 dollars for an adult admission– more if you include parking and an overpriced slurpy. I am being asked to pay a tax on something that I can not afford to enjoy. If they want to generate more income– they should turn to Delaware County residents. Powell benefits from the added business that the zoo brings to this stolidly middle class community. Also, most of these people can actually afford to go to the zoo once in awhile.

  • Christopher Gray

    Rezone it as Franklin County, or don’t ask people in the county to foot the bill.

  • Tallguy

    To me the sticking point is the downtown satellite zoo. $65 million? Really?? When have you ever known a public project to come in on or under budget? This whole project is a boondoggle of those who, understandably, want to enhance the “visit Columbus” experience, but want someone else to foot the bill. No details of the cost have come out. Nothing is guaranteed. Just, “trust us, it will be great!” These are not bad, nor nefarious people, just people out of touch with community sentiment, which seems to be one of supporting the zoo but not this project. The other sticking point is where Citizens for Responsible Taxation gets its funding. I will vote no; not because of CRT, but in spite of them.

  • kynos65

    I’m taxed enough. I don’t mind a renewal for our great zoo, or even adding a little extra to ensure its continued future- but a 66% increase? A downtown zoo? It’s too much, and needs re-thought. I don’t want to lock in forever throwing in extra (hard-earned) money for these projects I don’t agree with.

  • SCOTT

    I don’t mind voting yes for the levy but I’d like to see more discounts and perks for Franklin county residents. Half priced admission Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday isn’t enough and I have to work and take my family on those days anyway, it should be Friday Saturday and Sunday, with food stand and gift shop discounts.