Monday, May 21, 2018
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Zoo, COSI look to levies


From left, Candice Patterson, 11, of Garfield Elementary School, Andrew Finelli, 11, of Raymer Elementary School, Troy McCown, 12, of Garfield, and Ashley Bryant, 12, of Raymer play with the smoking ring at COSI. The children's science museum is seeking its first tax funding with Issue 11 on Tuesday's ballot. The Toledo Zoo also is seeking tax funds with Issue 13, a 10-year capital improvement levy.


It's one thing to simply keep the doors open. It's something else to keep the hinges oiled, and the boilers running, and the roof repaired.

The cost of maintenance may be the bottom line for both COSI and the Toledo Zoo as the institutions work to pass tax issues on Tuesday's election ballot.

For COSI, the children's science museum in downtown Toledo, the cost of upkeep of the 100,000-square-foot, city-owned facility created a cash-flow nightmare. The crisis came with declining attendance, from a high of 330,000 visitors in 2001 to a record low of 211,000 at the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

"It's good to have a pathologist in charge of this. I'm used to death," said Dr. F. Michael Walsh of his own profession as he talked about COSI's future.

Dr. Walsh is chairman of the COSI board during this, the center's first levy campaign.

Without passage of the five-year, 0.167-mill levy, listed on the ballot as Issue 11, the next thing COSI may need is an autopsy, Dr. Walsh said.

The levy would generate $1.4 million a year and cost the owner of a $100,000 home $5.11 annually.

No one makes the same grim assessment of the future at the zoo, which has a 1-mill, 10-year capital improvement levy on the ballot. The levy would generate $8.6 million a year and cost the owner of a $100,000 home $30.62 annually.

Listed on the ballot as Issue 13, the tax would replace a capital improvement levy that expired in December.

Unlike COSI, which has never received tax funding, the zoo has had taxpayer support since 1982. In May, voters approved a zoo operating levy but rejected a capital issue identical to the one on Tuesday's ballot. It was the first time a zoo tax issue failed.

Still, both institutions are plagued by one similar problem: the cost of upkeep.

"If you looked at cash only, we weren't in bad shape,'' Dr. Walsh said. "But that didn't count in if you have to replace the roof or replace a boiler. As soon as you started doing that, the gap between what you're charging versus what you are losing was much wider.''

By 2005, the COSI board wanted to change directions. They parted ways with museum director Bill Booth. He had been with COSI since before it opened in 1997.

A change in philosophy followed. No longer would COSI look at itself as a tourist destination. Instead, the institution formed partnerships with schools and colleges. In addition, the COSI board raised $1.2 million in donations from businesses around Lucas County to cover some of its expenses.

COSI cut staffing 47 percent, from the equivalent of 76 full-time employees to 39. In addition, the museum closed on Mondays.

But it wasn't enough.

"By the end of December, we will be very, very close to bone dry,'' Dr. Walsh said.

The institution is running as efficiently as possible, Dr. Walsh said. A national analysis of science museums shows that it costs other medium-size science centers $120 in operating expenses for every square foot of exhibit space. COSI's expenses are almost half that - $62 per square foot.

Levy passage would cover the operating deficit, allow for some hiring, and even pay for some expansion of programs, Dr. Walsh said.

At the zoo, major maintenance will make up a significant chunk of spending if the levy passes. For instance, replacing four 50-year-old boilers will cost about $1 million. Add some other repairs, including roof work, and there goes $6 million of the zoo's levy revenue.

Plus, the zoo has to face either the cost of a new electrical transmission system to meet its growing needs, or find alternative energy sources. That's another $3.4 million.

Neither the aquarium nor the elephant enclosure are sufficient for the zoo's needs, says Anne Baker, the zoo's executive director since April 1.

"They are literally working with garbage cans and things held together with duct tape'' in the 67-year-old aquarium, Ms. Baker said.

About $23 million in aquarium improvements will not only update display space, but save $50,000 a year in energy costs.

The elephant facility's shortcomings are of a different variety. The space can't accommodate the changing requirements for elephant keeping established by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Nor is Toledo equipped to care for its male elephant, Louie, when he reaches maturity.

Improvement to the elephant area, which also will spruce things up for the rhinos, will cost $14.5 million.

Another significant chunk of zoo levy money - $16.8 million - will pay off debt. Ms. Baker said with the levy's passage, the zoo will no longer take on debt to build new exhibits.

Thus, much of the aquarium renovation won't take place until the end of the 10-year levy - when all the money is in hand.

Contact Jenni Laidman at:

or 419-724-6507.

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