German Village Gazette

PAC forms to oppose Columbus Zoo's May levy

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The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium's proposed tax levy now faces organized opposition.

Dan McCormick of Upper Arlington, co-founder of Citizens for Responsible Taxation, says Franklin County voters can't afford the taxes it will take to build a new zoo facility on the Scioto Peninsula.

"If we say no to this, they don't get one penny less than they're getting now," said McCormick, because the zoo's current levy doesn't expire until the end of next year. "If you say no, animals will get fed, people will be paid, membership dues won't go up."

His group filed paperwork to form a political-action committee March 6 with the Franklin County Board of Elections.

Issue 6, a 1.25-mill levy that would replace the zoo's current 0.75-mill levy, will appear on the May 6 ballot. The levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $44 a year while the current levy, which expires in 2015, costs that same homeowner $21 a year.

Phil Pikelny, chairman of the zoo board of directors and an executive at The Dispatch Printing Company, the parent company of ThisWeek Community News, said zoo officials always go on the ballot a year prior to a levy expiring, to ensure a levy's success at the ballot.

"We're doing nothing differently than we've done with any other levy," he said.

A portion of $32.7 million raised annually would fund construction of a zoo satellite facility that would join a number of other attractions on the peninsula, such as the Center of Science and Industry, a new Franklin County Veterans Memorial and planned residential and retail uses.

The satellite zoo facility, estimated to cost $50 to $55 million, is projected to open in 2017. It would feature exotic animals, along with possible educational space, as well as overnight facilities for guests.

Pikelny said the economic benefits are considerable: new construction jobs, additional zoo employees and tourist dollars.

Plus, the satellite zoo would offer access to a whole new audience of people -- students included -- who would otherwise have to drive 19 miles north to visit zoo attractions.

"This is a huge economic development piece and jobs driver," Pikelny said.

"But most importantly, we believe we will go from 2 million who go to the zoo (annually) to 2.3 million," he said. "Eventually, that's how we get ... in time, to 3 million and 4 million."

McCormick argues the current tax burden for Franklin County residents is too high, exacerbated by two separate sales tax increases that recently went into effect at the state and county levels.

Another troubling aspect to the levy is it only affects Franklin County voters, McCormick said.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is in Delaware County, meaning its residents would be exempt from the tax, McCormick said.

"If 30 percent (of zoo visitors) live in Delaware County and don't pay taxes on it, that's pertinent," McCormick said.

Pikelny said McCormick's contention is a common misconception.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is technically in the city of Columbus and Franklin County, according to a lease that was forged more than 40 years ago when the facility was moved from city proper to its current location, Pikelny said.

Because of that deal, Delaware County forgoes $7 million annually in property tax revenue, Pikelny said. Liberty Township, and Delaware County to some degree, pick up the tab for fire, ambulance and police services dispatched to the zoo.

"Delaware county residents do pay," he said.

Nevertheless, the zoo board is looking at promotions that will be more generous to Franklin County residents, such as offering half-price admission on Monday and Tuesday, in addition to Wednesday, which already is half price to those who live in Franklin County.

McCormick has been involved in a number of tax opposition groups in Upper Arlington, including Arlington Voter Awareness, which fought against a 1.5-mill tax to build and operate a recreation center in 2002; Citizens for Change in UA, which opposed a $25 million bond issue for the library in 2009; and Educate UA, which was against school levy requests in 2012 and 2013.

"I think we look at each one individually and when we think one's especially egregious or stretching, we don't mind coming out and helping educate the voters," McCormick said.

He said Citizens for Responsible Taxation had 40 members as of last week.

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