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In the past two years, Lucas County voters have been wooed by an array of yard signs, billboards, and television ads.
With levy campaigns that cost more than $300,000, the Toledo Zoo, the Toledo Area Metroparks, and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library have successfully convinced voters they needed money. Each levy was approved resoundingly.
But taxpayers may be facing levy fatigue.
The library and the zoo have levies that expire next year, and all three have levies expiring in 2007.
And now, the local downtown hands-on science center, COSI, is considering a first-ever levy.
That does not count the expected tax requests from school districts, social service agencies, and others.
Is it time to consider a single-bullet approach to paying for Toledo s community assets?
“It s a very interesting thought,” said Clyde Scoles, director of the 18-branch Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. “I think there s merit in [that].”
Communities throughout the country have come to similar conclusions on funding cultural and recreational organizations.
Denver, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Salt Lake County in Utah all have used a collaborative approach for public funding of museums, zoos, and science centers.
“I m very much in favor of looking at the issue more closely. Everybody cares deeply about COSI, and the art museum, and the Valentine Theatre,” Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said. “I believe we re headed in our county toward more regional cooperation.”
She said she recognizes that any plan would have to look at how it helps taxpayers and the people who use these assets.
“The public will ask, and rightly so, what do we get for our investment? We ve got a lot of questions to ask and a lot of answers to provide,” Ms. Wozniak said last week.
Lucas County Commissioner Maggie Thurber said commissioners need to look at whether the public would support turning authority over to one body.
Communities across the country have considered, and some have adopted, an all-for-one funding approach. In the Pittsburgh area, Allegheny County levies a 1 percent sales tax for a Regional Asset District that distributes money - $75 million a year - to sports centers, libraries, parks, museums, and numerous other community assets.
And for more than 15 years, Denver-area institutions have benefited from a tenth-of-a-cent sales tax for the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District.
More than 300 institutions in seven Colorado counties share in the proceeds from the sales tax that generates more than $30 million a year. The tax, first adopted in 1988, is up for a 12-year renewal in November.
Under the facilities district, the five biggest institutions in the Denver area - the zoo, art museum, botanic gardens, nature and science museum, and performing arts center - get more than half of the money. The rest is distributed to the symphony, ballet, and much smaller groups.
In exchange for funding, many of the groups offer free admission to area residents on certain days.
“Without this tax, there wouldn t be nearly as much going on,” said Mary Ellen Williams, administrator of the district in Denver.
For the Toledo area, the carrot of free admission may not be enough to convince voters to pay more taxes than they already do, even for important community assets, said Harry Barlos, president of the Lucas County Commissioners.
“Are they significant, are they important to any community? Absolutely,” he said. “My concern is have the taxpayers or homeowners reached their breaking point?”
Ms. Thurber said she is intrigued by the idea of consolidating levies, but agreed it is possible taxpayers have had enough.
“If government raises taxes, we are saying to the taxpayers that it is more important to take their money and spend it on ... COSI, the symphony, or parks,” she said.
Other communities that have decided to pool resources to fund community assets, such as Pittsburgh, have reduced property taxes to help sell voters on increasing sales taxes to finance a wide range of institutions.
Toledo Mayor Jack Ford has said he plans to appoint a committee that will look at ways to fund community assets.
The group may consider a levy or a fund like United Way, with businesses making contributions to help support community assets. The committee may also explore creation of a regional community assets district board.
Mr. Ford said he plans to talk to commissioners in Lucas County and Wood County, whose residents use Toledo-area facilities, about the best way to fund community assets.
“I think it s time to have a good discussion,” he said.
There are others who are not interested in being part of such a discussion, such as Bill Dennler, executive director of the Toledo Zoo.
“I would not want to jeopardize the levies that we have right now,” he said.
He fears a tax request from a combined group could blur the funding messages that the zoo now relies on. Each time the zoo asks for money, Mr. Dennler said, voters know exactly what it is going for.
Next year, the zoo s capital improvements levy expires, and Mr. Dennler said the zoo is considering a request to update the aquarium, the elephant barn, and zoo offices.
“The system we have works,” he said.
Cuyahoga County officials in Cleveland have found that business as usual is not working for them.
The county has put a levy on the March 2 ballot to fund economic development efforts, community assets, and institutions such as museums and the symphony.
Officials there chose to go with a county approach instead of regional because of a state law that requires that there be a city with a population of at least 500,000 in any taxing district that is created to fund community assets.
There is a provision in the law to get around that requirement: Every municipality in the proposed district would have to agree to be a part of it.
Oregon Mayor Marge Brown said she believes residents all over Lucas County who benefit from the zoo, library, and museums should help fund them. But she would want assurances Oregon residents get some financial benefit too.
“The entities outside of Toledo should have a seat on the board,” she said.
Maumee Mayor Tim Wagener said he would be willing to look at the idea of regional funding, but he would need a guarantee that money would go to assets in his area, such as the Wolcott House Museum.
“I d want to see how the money is dispersed,” he said.
In Sylvania, Mayor Craig Stough said any discussion about a regional levy or board that would help community assets should include people outside Lucas County.
“These really are regional assets,” he said.
To see how Lucas County voters might respond to a combined levy, you could look back to Nov. 4, 1997.
That s when the county s Metroparks, zoo, and library district all went to the voters seeking operating levies that generate $18.5 million a year. The reaction from voters: Yes, yes, and yes. Each request was approved, with no fewer than 73 percent of the voters backing the issues.
Would the voters have approved a slightly larger levy that would have helped all three, and then some? Jim Spengler, director of the Toledo Area Metroparks, said such a campaign could be more difficult to run - and more expensive. Mr. Dennler said it would make it more difficult for each organization to make its case for support.
“I don t want to confuse people, make them think we are trying to pull the wool over on them,” Mr. Dennler said.
In Denver, it took six years to get the area s biggest institutions and its biggest players to agree on a plan to combine their efforts. The drive to create the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District started in 1982, but voters did not get a crack at it until 1988, when it passed overwhelmingly.
“It wasn t an easy thing to do,” said Ms. Williams, the district s administrator.
Making it easier, however, was the support of the biggest organizations, such as the zoo. In part, the Denver district takes advantage of the zoo s positive relationship with the community. It s not a coincidence that the district s logo has a polar bear - and not a paint brush or a violin - as its dominant image.
“Putting the zoo s image more near the front was a strategic decision,” she said.
It also is part of a trend to broaden the definition of cultural institutions, said Steven Tepper, deputy director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.
Often seen as elitist, cultural institutions like the symphony have tried to increase their base of support. Some are putting on “pops” concerts and doing more community concerts.
Calling the zoo a “cultural” institution can “break down the barriers between the high arts and other kinds of cultural and leisure activities,” he said. It s not just a crass strategy to get more money, he said. “Arts institutions are recognizing they have to change.”
Dozens of cities have united arts funds, raising private money for the arts through one organization. The thought: It s easier to raise money together than separately. Mr. Tepper said this attitude can be healthy.
“I would say in the long term, the arts community needs to think of itself as a single ecology,” Mr. Tepper said. “Collaboration can only be in everybody s best interest.”
It is an idea that some, like Oregon s Ms. Brown, are willing to talk about for Lucas County.
“I think this would be something excellent to explore,” she said.
That s pleases Bill Booth, executive director of COSI.
The science museum, a major boon to the look and feel of downtown, has been profitable only three of the last seven years and finished last year with a deficit of $90,244.
Mr. Booth said he would “absolutely” welcome the idea of a regional board or county-wide levy to help all community assets, instead of each organization seeking tax money on its own.
“I think to create an elegant city we need to have a balance of institutions,” he said.