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Voters Emphatically Reject Columbus Zoo Levy
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For the first time, Franklin County voters overwhelmingly rejected a tax levy request from the Columbus Zoo levy. The high-profile campaign featured Jack Hanna, popular zoo animals and for the first time, organized opposition. The zoo levy request turned on pocket-book issues.
Columbus Zoo officials wanted Franklin County voters to approve a new permanent levy that would double what property owners contribute to the zoo in Delaware County.
It would have generated about $31 million a year. And zoo officials had tapped most of that money for on-going capital projects at the main zoo.
But voters found numerous reasons to reject it.
Too much at once
For some, like Rita Rice, the additional tax was too much.
“The elderly owning property and on fixed incomes, they just can’t afford a double whammy,” Rice said.
Others, like William Anderson, didn’t like the downtown attraction.
“To put something downtown is absolutely idiotic,” Anderson said.
And Richard Benintendi said the current tax is sufficient.
“I think they’re doing just fine the way they’re doing,” Benintendi said.
All of these reasons combined led to the levy’s sound defeat.
“Taxpayers are just at a breaking point here,” said Mike Gonidakis, who speaks for Citizens for Responsible Taxation, the levy opposition group. “I hope our local elected officials realize that when you raise our taxes multiple times, this is what happens. We vote down these other discretionary things because we can’t continue to sustain additional tax increases on top of tax increases.”
For the first time in memory, the zoo was up against organized opposition, and then came Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brother’s group out of Virginia. It spent more than $20,000 to send out mailers and make robo calls.
Eli Miller speaks for the Ohio chapter. He said voters responded to the group’s message.
“Our members are ecstatic,” Miller said. “They’re ecstatic because they get to keep more money in their pockets.”
At the Columbus Zoo, levy supporters and volunteers were mostly deflated after early results foretold a decisive defeat. Emeritus Director Jack Hanna campaigned personally for the new permanent zoo tax but was disappointed by the outcome.
“I know one thing. I’m never going into politics,” says Hanna.
Zoo Board chair Phil Pikelny characterized the levy request as ‘aggressive,’ but he too was little prepared for the voters’ decision and the margin of defeat.
“It is surprising to me to see what the numbers are,” Pikelny said.
Pikelny says it will take several weeks for the zoo board to understand why voters turned on the zoo after years of strong support at the polls. He holds that even after Tuesday’s defeat the zoo still enjoys widespread goodwill.
“It is an asset. You know it is something that brings people to the area and I support it. I think it’s a great thing,” said Jody Dzuranin, a zoo supporter.
The question now for the Zoo’s board is when to place another levy before voters. Pikelny says the zoo absolutely needs a tax levy from the voters of Franklin County.
“Our zoo levy does go through the end of 2015,” Pikelny said. “So we have an opportunity if the county commissioners put it there to go in November. If there is another primary we could go a year from now. And, we would also have November of 2015.”
Pikelny says zoo leaders heard the voters of Franklin County “loud and clear” on Tuesday and any future levy request will have to be “in sync” with what voters want.
Tom Borgerding and Sam Hendren contributed to this story.