Sunday, October 19, 2003

Zoo levy scaled back to lessen dependency



By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is asking for less money at the ballot box next month than it's now receiving from Hamilton County property owners. "It's a third of our operating budget," said Gregg Hudson, the zoo's president and chief operating officer. "It's vital for us to be able to continue to be a world-class facility."

The zoo's 0.40-mill request - down from 0.42 mills - would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $9.57 a year, according to the Hamilton County Auditor's Office. It would raise $6.2 million a year for the zoo, which gets more than 1 million visitors a year.

The zoo levy campaign - funded through $300,000 in private donations - includes "Renew the Zoo" signs and possibly some TV commercials in these final weeks. It's the only countywide issue on the November ballot.

"It's a pretty simple story," Hudson said. "People can continue to support the zoo and it won't raise their taxes."

Before the county agreed to put the levy on the ballot, it paid for an outside review of the zoo's finances and operations - the first test of a new policy to better control the burgeoning cost of countywide levies.

New Jersey-based A.T. Hudson & Co. Inc. found the zoo well-managed, although it recommended about $555,000 a year in cost savings through such changes as centralizing purchasing operations.

The report also suggested the zoo consider raising admission and membership fees. The admission price is lowest among area attractions, according to the Hudson analysis.

The zoo has collected endorsements from an array of groups, including the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.

The business community was impressed with a University of Cincinnati analysis that estimated the zoo's impact on the local economy at $88.4 million a year.

However, the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes is against the levy, according to state Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr., a Republican from Mount Lookout and founder of the coalition.

COAST was not satisfied with the zoo's pledge to ask for no more than $6.5 million a year in its next levy renewal.

"We want to see the continued trend of them weaning themselves off of levies," Brinkman said.

The zoo lost a 1997 levy attempt after coming under criticism for a proposed parking garage and using taxpayers' money in the levy campaign.

In 1998, voters passed a smaller levy - 0.42 mills.

E-mail candrews@enquirer.com




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