Sunday, October 19, 2003

Zoo levy: Renewal with reduction

No property tax levy can be as warm and cuddly as a baby penguin or koala bear, but as levies go, Cincinnati Zoo's five-year renewal with a reduction shouldn't ruffle feathers either - even when the combined hit from all Hamilton County tax levies is being questioned. The zoo levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home less than $10 a year.

As Hamilton County's No. 1 year-round attraction and one of the nation's five top-rated zoos, Cincinnati Zoo accounts for more than 1,200 jobs and generates a total economic impact of $88.4 million. That total is projected to rise to almost $96 million in 2003. The zoo is making that rare levy request to renew at a reduced millage of 0.40 mills - down from 0.42. The levy will raise $6.2 million a year - down from $6.5 million. That's about one-third of the zoo's annual $18.8 million operating budget, the rest coming from private donations and admission charges.

Zoo President Gregg Hudson says he's made more than $500,000 in cuts to the zoo's operating budget, reducing budget reliance on the levy to 31 percent. Of Ohio's five zoos, Cincinnati Zoo relies least on a property tax levy for support. Only one zoo in the country - San Diego's top-rated zoo - supports itself without any property tax help. None of Cincinnati Zoo's levy revenues go toward capital projects; public dollars go exclusively to operating expenses.

Keeping the zoo healthy, by any calculation, is a smart investment. The zoo's economic impact in jobs and revenues is anchored in Avondale, in the heart of Hamilton County. County residents account for 45 percent of the zoo's visitors, which means the zoo draws 55 percent here from outside the county. All the zoo's educational programs, including its fully accredited high school, benefit Hamilton County students.

A May efficiency audit by Hamilton County's independent consultant A.T. Hudson found some zoo opportunities for additional savings, such as in centralized purchasing, but it also cited a long list of cost savings already made by the zoo. Board chairman Kerry Clark, Procter & Gamble's vice chairman, credits the zoo for becoming "much more financially focused" to achieve its three missions of the zoo visiting experience, education and conservation.

By next summer Hudson expects to redevelop almost 1,000 extra parking spaces across Vine Street, and add buffer landscaping as promised to the neighborhoods. The zoo is making the right moves. It deserves a yes vote on Issue 17.

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