With its famous gorillas, cute baby elephant and twin polar bears, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has plenty to endear itself to Franklin County voters. But is that enough to win passage of a permanent levy that would cost taxpayers twice what they're now paying?
With its famous gorillas, cute baby elephant and twin polar bears, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has plenty to endear itself to Franklin County voters.
But is that enough to win passage of a permanent levy that would cost taxpayers twice what they're now paying?
Voters will decide when they cast ballots on May 6 on Issue 6, the 1.25-mill levy that would replace the current 0.75-mill property tax. The new levy would cost homeowners about $44 a year per $100,000 of property value; the current levy, which expires in 2015, costs $21 a year.
Proponents say the levy is needed to maintain and expand on the success enjoyed by the zoo in recent years. The Columbus Zoo consistently ranks among the top zoos in the country in surveys of visitors and zoological experts. It draws more visitors than any other zoo in Ohio, and receives just 15 percent of its revenue from taxpayers.
While voters have been consistent supporters of previous zoo levies, responses to this proposal have not been universally positive, with at least one group having formed to oppose it.
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Some think Franklin County taxpayers shouldn't bear the entire tax burden for a zoo that's located in Delaware County. Some zoos, such as the Detroit Zoo, spread out the tax burden to several counties.
But four of the five zoos in Ohio are supported by levies limited to one county. Except for Columbus, the tax is paid in the county that is home to the zoo.
The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo taxes property owners in Cuyahoga County and in Medina County's Hinckley Township, south of Cuyahoga. The Cleveland Metroparks levy supports not only the zoo but all the metro parks, including one in Hinckley.
Columbus Zoo officials say they have discussed expanding the zoo levy to nearby counties but don't see that as viable. Phil Pikelny, the chairman of the Columbus Zoo board and an executive of The Dispatch Printing Company, pointed out that Columbus and Franklin County own the zoo property and benefit the most.
"Where the levy funds come from is where the levy funds ought to come from in terms of who's getting the most value from the zoo," he said.
Franklin County voters have approved four zoo levies since 1985 - a positive investment for taxpayers because the zoo contributes $238 million annually to central Ohio's economy, Pikelny said."Nothing else has that kind of return."
Residents of Delaware County's Liberty Township, where the zoo is located, pay for the zoo's police and fire protection.
Greg Bell, the chief financial officer for the zoo, estimated that the 580 acres would generate $7 million a year in property taxes if medium-price homes were on the site instead. Delaware County does not receive property taxes from that land because the zoo is a nonprofit organization.
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The zoo offers Franklin County residents half-price admission on Wednesdays and half-price group admission for county schoolchildren. Some, however, want more.
Claudia Maynard of the Northwest Side suggested that the zoo give all Franklin County residents who pay property taxes one free ticket to the zoo every year.
"If we are expected to pay for it, which I'm not opposed to since the zoo is a wonderful asset to the city, we should be allowed to go visit our investment once a year (in exchange) for our tax payments," Maynard said.
Of the Ohio zoos, only Cincinnati does not offer some kind of price break to taxpayers.
The Toledo Zoo gives a $2 discount for Lucas County residents; it also offers free admission on designated days.
The Cleveland Zoo offers free admission on most Mondays.
Pikelny said the zoo board is considering price breaks on admission and memberships for Franklin County residents.
"That is a very good argument people are making," he said. "We're looking to see if there's a way that would be convenient for consumers and financially sound."
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Public funding for zoos isn't unusual.
Jim Maddy, the president and chief executive officer of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said that about half of the accredited zoos in the United States and Canada receive public money.
"There's a clear understanding that zoos are educational, and they're cultural institutions," Maddy said. "All across the country, zoos have tremendous support, and they're more popular than they've ever been."
Eighty-five percent of the Columbus Zoo's operating budget comes from admissions, memberships, food, beverage and gift sales, rides, grants and contributions, the golf course and other smaller revenue-producing activities. The remainder is funded by taxpayers. The 15 percent from taxpayers, Maddy said, is well below the percentage at most other publicly supported zoos. The Cleveland Zoo, for example, gets 49 percent of its operating budget from taxpayers.
The $18.5 million the Columbus Zoo collects annually from property taxes is the most among Ohio zoos. The Toledo zoo is second, collecting $12.4 million a year in both operating and capital-improvements dollars.
If the levy passes, the Columbus Zoo will collect $32.5 million a year from property taxes – more than twice as much as any other Ohio zoo.
Pikelny said Franklin County residents get more in return.
Columbus has more animals - 9,400 - than the other zoos in Ohio and many zoos across the country, he said. More of Columbus' exhibits immerse visitors in the culture and lifestyle of a country or region, such as North America and Africa, he said.
"It's the difference between going to Disney World and going to an amusement park," he said.
"The truth of the matter is, the only thing the Columbus Zoo has in common with the other zoos in Ohio is the fact that we are a zoo. We're not trying to be the 'local' zoo. What truly we are trying to be is a regional, an international facility. You could compare us to the San Diego Zoo, to the National Zoo."
If the levy passes, plans include updating the North America and gorilla exhibits, building a new animal hospital, adding a tram system for visitors, expanding the aquarium and establishing a satellite zoo Downtown. Eighty percent of money collected from the levy would go for capital improvements, as it does now.
As the zoo grows, so will its positive economic impact on Franklin County, Pikelny said.
"We've been good stewards of the public's money. Our feeling has always been that what the citizens of Franklin County are asking us to be is No. 1 in the field."