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Published: Friday, 6/30/2006

Zoo, COSI warn of cuts if levies fail on the ballot

BY ERIC LUND
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Two Lucas County organizations would have to drastically cut back their operations, or in the case of one, possibly shut down, if they don't get tax levy support, the Lucas County Citizens Tax Levy Review Committee was told last night.

COSI Toledo and the Toledo Zoo both requested levies be placed on the November ballot, asking for 0.167-mill and 1-mill, respectively. Together with Lucas County Children Services, which has gone before the advisory committee, and Lucas County Emergency Services, the requested levies have a total price tag of $94.74 annually for a $100,000 home.

Representatives of COSI Toledo called the organization's current funding model, which does not include any public support, "unsustainable."

Even after reducing full-time staff by 47 percent and cutting the budget $958,000 - to $2.85 million - since 2001, "we are still managing to lose money," said Dr. F. Michael Walsh, president of COSI Toledo's board of directors.

The science center has lost money every year since it opened in 1997, according to the levy request, and currently is losing up to $400,000 a month.

Over 90 percent of science centers and children's museums get public funding, which accounts for an average 26.4 percent of their budgets, the request states, and most that don't are smaller than COSI Toledo.

Committee member Bob Vasquez expressed concern that COSI Toledo, if given levy funding, would not find a way to become financially independent.

Dr. Walsh said COSI Toledo is trying to partner with local educators and improve programs to increase the chances of grants and other types of funding, but needs a short-term fix for its budget woes.

If approved, the levy will be used "to restore the level of programming that the community expects and deserves," according to the request.

Money would be used to develop partnerships with local schools and colleges and attempt to improve science test scores for public schools through those partnerships, said Michelle Klinger, COSI's director of professional development and curriculum.

The 0.167-mill, five-year levy would generate $1.4 million a year and cost about $5.11 annually on a $100,000 home.

The request contends that COSI Toledo is "a visible symbol of the community's commitment to its youth," and that the center, which draws 270,000 visitors annually, "is an anchor on Toledo's downtown riverfront."

Two years ago, a 0.5-mill levy for COSI Columbus was rejected by Franklin County voters.

At that time, levy laws required the center to offer to provide free admission to county residents if it received public funding, which resulted in a much larger levy than is now required in Toledo, said Jim Holly, chief operations officer for COSI Toledo.

He said its size and a hasty preparation process contributed to that levy's defeat.

Committee members also asked COSI Toledo staff to provide data on the racial and gender makeup of COSI staff and visitors, and to show data on where visitors reside.

The Toledo Zoo's 10-year, 1-mill capital improvement levy request - which is being resubmitted after being defeated by voters in May - would raise $8.6 million a year and cost home-

owners $30.62 annually on a $100,000 home. A 0.85-mill operating levy for the zoo was approved in May. The proposed 1-mill levy would take the place of the last capital improvements levy that expired in December, 2005.

Zoo spokesman Andi Norman said the May election saw lower voter turnout and that the zoo is campaigning for more support than it did in May.

Anne Baker, the zoo's executive director, told the committee the zoo could have to cut some displays if the levy is not approved.

"There are some essential expenses we have to deal with," she said, adding the zoo could face "significant cutbacks" without the levy.

The levy would not be used to expand the zoo, but pay for renovations, including to the parking lot, aquarium, children's zone, and elephant and rhino exhibits.



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