The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium will return to the ballot with a new proposal after voters overwhelmingly said no to a permanent levy following a raucous and sometimes nasty campaign. The zoo's request for a permanent, 1.25-mill property tax was rejected by 70 percent of Franklin County voters, according to unofficial returns with 99 percent of the vote reported.
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium will return to the ballot with a new proposal after voters overwhelmingly said no to a permanent levy following a raucous and sometimes nasty campaign.
The zoo’s request for a permanent, 1.25-mill property tax was rejected by 70 percent of Franklin County voters, according to unofficial returns with 99 percent of the vote reported.
Election Results: Primary 2014
“The voters spoke very clearly,” Phil Pikelny, chairman of the zoo board, said last night. “The vision we were offering is not the one the voters want at this time. People do love this zoo. What they didn’t love is the plan we thought they would want.”
He said the board will study what voters objected to and then decide what kind of levy to place on a future ballot.
The failure is the first for the zoo and its most expensive campaign, at an estimated $700,000.
Past zoo levies have sailed to victory, but this one attracted a local opposition group and then a national anti-tax organization — Americans for Prosperity, supported by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
Eli Miller, Ohio director of Americans for Prosperity, said his staff and volunteers knocked on thousands of doors and called thousands of residents. They also sent out mailings, ran radio ads, polled voters and made robo calls.
“Franklin County voters spoke tonight, and they didn’t want a permanent tax increase,” Miller said.
Past levies have been for five or 10 years, but the zoo had gone to the legislature to gain the ability to seek a permanent tax because it wanted a stable funding stream.
The local group — Citizens for Responsible Taxation — distributed fliers and yard signs and spoke against the levy at forums, on radio and door-to-door. Spokesman Dan McCormick said the group “is happy that the voters connected with our message about doubling their zoo tax permanently for a Downtown zoo with no participation from the entire region that benefits.”
The group had said that Delaware County property owners should also pay the tax because the main zoo is in their county.
The zoo campaign hired a public-relations firm and professional campaign strategists, advertised on billboards, sent out mailings, advertised on television and held campaign rallies featuring zoo animals.
Popular emeritus director Jack Hanna starred in many of its television ads and campaigned in person in the county, particularly this past weekend.
Opponents also railed against a planned new Downtown satellite zoo, to be built south of COSI Columbus along the Scioto River.
The levy would have paid 85 percent of its $50 million to $65 million cost. The satellite, planned as an attraction for convention visitors and as a less-expensive alternative to the main zoo in Delaware County, would have been part aquarium, part rain forest and part playground.
Pikelny, who also is an executive of The Dispatch Printing Company, which publishes The Dispatch and Dispatch.com, said he didn’t know what would happen with the proposed Downtown facility.
Opponents also complained that the amount homeowners would pay would be double the cost of the current zoo levy. It would have cost homeowners in Franklin County $44 a year per $100,000 of property value; the current levy costs $21 a year. Part of the increase would have been because the state no longer pays 12.5 percent of new levies for homeowners.
The state subsidy would remain if the current levy were renewed. That 10-year, 0.75-mill property tax doesn’t expire until the end of 2015. So the zoo has time to return to the ballot without seeing a break in revenue if voters approve a tax in November or in 2015.
The failed levy would have raised $32.7 million a year compared with the current levy’s $18.9 million a year.
The levy also would have paid for new and renovated exhibits, on-grounds transportation, a zoo-hospital update, new security and a new amphitheater.