By Brian Flinchpaugh
St. Louis Zoo officials met with the St. Charles County Council to set the stage for potentially placing a sales tax increase on the ballot to help pay for increasing expenses and upkeep of the zoo.
The council took no action after meeting with zoo officials and supporters during an April 11 work session. Enabling legislation pending in the Missouri General Assembly has to be enacted before the county could decide whether to put a sales tax on the ballot.
A bill under consideration in the legislature would allow St. Charles, Jefferson, St. Louis and Franklin counties and the city of St. Louis to place on the ballot an increase in sales tax of as much as one-eighth percent to support the zoo.
Currently the zoo receives support from the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District, formed in 1972, which provide property tax revenue from the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
The district provides financial support for the zoo, the Missouri Botanical Garden, The Missouri History Museum, the St. Louis Science Center, and the St. Louis Art Museum. The zoo received about $20 million in revenue from the district in 2015, according to the district’s website.
Jeffrey Bonner, president of the zoo, told the council that the zoo has spent $62 million over the last eight years to improve the nationally renowned zoo, which is more than a century old.
But the zoo still has $52 million in deferred maintenance, Bonner said, along with other needs for animal conservation and breeding.
Revenue from tax support hasn’t gone up, and costs continue to rise, he said. The zoo can raise prices, Bonner said. “There is only so much you can charge for a hamburger,” Bonner said. Philanthropy also is a major support but it also can be unpredictable, he added.
But Councilman Joe Cronin [District 1], chair of the council, suggested charging admission as one way of raising money. The zoo historically has not charged admission.
Cronin noted that other institutions and museums here and around the country charge admission. “The thing that comes to mind, and I’ve heard it from a number of my constituents, is why not a small admission fee,” Cronin said. “You’re already charging an admission fee at the [Missouri] Botanical Gardens.”
Sale taxes are regressive, “meaning that folks in my district, a working family in Wentzville, it takes more out of their budget than someone that’s eating lobsters in Ladue,” he said.
A sales tax is also a disadvantage to small business owners like himself because every time it goes up its more of a disadvantage for them compared to online retailers like Amazon, Cronin added.
“I don’t understand the insistence on free admission,” Cronin said. A charge of $5 or $10 a person might raise more revenue, he said.
Zoo officials said legislation now may prohibit them from changing the free admission policy. Cronin asked why zoo officials can’t get that policy changed if the county is willing to put something on the ballot allowing a sales tax for the zoo.
Mathew Geekie, president of the St. Louis Zoo Association, said an admissions charge may lower attendance, which could also mean lower concession and food sales and a loss of revenue.
Some zoos, such as the San Diego Zoo, charge as much as $50 for individual admissions, which Geekie said might have more of a financial impact on a family from Wentzville than a sales tax would. The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the National Zoo in Washington D.C. are other major zoos that have free admission, Bonner said.
“One of the things that is a highlight of St. Louis is a free zoo,” said Jeff Rainford, another association representative and a former longtime aide to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. “I think it’s a big part of St. Louis identity; people are emotionally attached to it.”
Results of an opinion poll of 400 St. Charles County residents in February showed that 59 percent wanted to maintain a free zoo even if a sales tax were imposed, Rainford said. In all, 68 percent of those polled would support up to a one-eighth cent sales tax, he said.
The poll also showed that 61 percent agreed that the county should step up and support institutions like the zoo. Rainford said the poll indicated 92 percent of county residents polled viewed the zoo favorably – 82 percent “very favorably.” Only 11 percent of polled residents felt the zoo wastes too much tax money.
Association and zoo officials said they would provide more financial information and detailed plans on how any additional funding would be spent before asking directly to place a sales tax increase on the ballot. Rainford said the first meeting’s purpose was to open a dialogue.
Zoo officials are also meeting with officials in other counties. “This obviously isn’t close to the last time you will see us,” Rainford said.