News: Zoo Tax on the Decline

Levy is first step in ending subsidy

Sep 24, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

The tax levy is the beginning of the end of the Cincinnati Zoo's reliance on public funds, according to CEO Gregg Hudson, shown here with a potto.

Officials of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden say they have taken the first step in lessening their dependence on tax money by asking Hamilton County voters this November to renew a tax levy at a reduced rate.

The zoo is asking voters to renew a five-year property tax at the rate of 0.4 mills, down from the current 0.42 mills passed in 1998. If approved, the levy will raise about $6.2 million a year for the zoo, compared to the current $6.5 million. The tax will cost the owner of a $100,000 house about $9.80 a year, compared to the nearly $11 now in effect.

"Not only are we promising to reduce our dependency on public monies, but we're going to do it,'' says Gregg Hudson, the zoo's chief executive officer. "In a period of time when everybody else is asking for more and philanthropic dollars are less, we made a commitment and we're fulfilling that. It is a reduction, and it is an important first step.''

The levy money makes up about 30 percent of the zoo's $18.8 million annual budget. The money is earmarked for animal care and food and veterinary services. It cannot be used for building construction or land acquisition.

The zoo has not been without some controversy in the past several years.

A 1997 levy failed because voters thought it too robust, while a leaner levy was approved in 1998.

But in the two following years, an audit found the zoo had improperly spent about $13,000 in tax funds, including meals at a Hooters restaurant. Subsequent audits have found the zoo following the rules for spending tax money.

Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich says he's pleased with the reduced renewal, which came as the result of mandatory reviews of all tax levies to see where money could be saved. An outside agency, A.T. Hudson, recommended more than $500,000 in reduced expenses, which was accepted by the zoo and the county's Tax Levy Review Committee.

"The zoo was very cooperative in the whole process,'' Heimlich says. "I consider it a success all around. If there is one example of how a tax levy should be handled, this is it. Probably for the first time that I'm aware of in recent history, we actually reduced the levy.''

'A better than usual case'
Not everyone supports the tax. The Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) opposes the zoo levy, in spite of the reduction.

"There are actually more areas in which cost-cutting measures could have been implemented,'' says Jim Urling, chairman of COAST. "So why can't they lower it even more?''

Urling said the zoo isn't making enough progress in its commitment to wean itself off tax monies.

State Rep. Tom Brinkman (R-Mount Lookout), a board member of COAST, also opposes the zoo tax.

"The people who run the zoo are very deceptive and dishonest and they've been that way for years,'' Brinkman says. "The public is very wary of what they're doing. The zoo has put forth a better than usual case to avoid opposition. They are actually having a true reduction, which is good. But what bothers me is while they have made a reduction this time, they are not agreeing to guarantee us a reduction five years from now.''

The zoo could do more to cut expenses, according to Brinkman. He also wants it to adopt an anti-nepotism policy. Ed Maruska, the former zoo director, had been criticized for hiring relatives for high-level jobs.

"My concern is where do we go five years from now?'' Brinkman says. "Ideally, we shouldn't be doing (subsidies for) the zoo, we shouldn't be doing stadiums, we shouldn't be doing museum centers.''

Chris Finney is on COAST's board but also serves on the Tax Levy Review Committee. He's more tolerant of the renewal.

"Because I sit on the (committee) and we approved a level of funding for the zoo, I personally am just not terribly militant about the zoo levy issue,'' he says. "There are two kinds of plums for people who are for limited taxes. One is that the actual millage goes down. So that was a plus. And in addition, there was a commitment to not go above that and to attempt to get it down and reduce the dependency long-term.''

Ending the zoo's subsidy might take 15 to 20 years, Hudson says. The zoo has its own foundation that has raised $19 million to that end, but a market with ups and downs has made predictions about growth tenuous. This year zoo officials predict putting close to $2 million into the endowment.

"The timetable is we're going to continue to make progress to lessen the dependency,'' Hudson says. "I think it isn't something that is going to be solved in the next levy cycle. It goes beyond that. It could be a long-term partnership over the next 15 to 20 years to try and get to that.''

Heimlich is patient. He wants to wait until further reviews to suggest how the zoo is doing in reducing levy dependency.

"They'll be evaluated,'' Heimlich says. "Are you doing what you said you would do? There is a separate policy issue of whether the zoo should be weaning itself off of taxes. I think there's some pretty good arguments for that. But at least for now we're pretty pleased with the way this process went. I do think we have to start talking about gradually moving to private support. I think long-term they're going to have to move in the direction of self-supporting.''

Hudson is optimistic about the zoo and its place in Cincinnati.

"This zoo has got a fantastic collection, it's got wonderful educational, conservation and science programs,'' he says. "All those things work together to make this place so special. It's one of the most well-rounded zoos in the country." ©