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Published: Monday, 6/20/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Space for zoo-tax hearing grows

Wood County commissioners to be asked for spot on ballot

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Anne Baker, Toledo Zoo director, wants Wood County residents to pay an 0.85-mill levy to help defray costs. Anne Baker, Toledo Zoo director, wants Wood County residents to pay an 0.85-mill levy to help defray costs.
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BOWLING GREEN -- Expecting a crowd, Wood County commissioners have moved Tuesday's meeting with Toledo Zoo officials about a possible zoo tax into the large hearing room next to their offices.

At 10 a.m., Zoo Director Anne Baker is to make her case for asking Wood County voters to pay the same 0.85-mill, five-year levy now paid by Lucas County property owners to help pay for zoo operations.

If approved in Wood County, the levy would bring in an additional $2.44 million a year for the zoo and would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $26 a year.

"We know that Wood County residents use and value the zoo. That is clear to us," Ms. Baker said. "The zoo is a regional asset. We're very aware of that."

Levy approval in Wood County would result in residents' being offered the same benefits available to Lucas County residents: one day a week of free admission, free visits by zoo staff and animals to schools, and free admission to school groups.

Ms. Baker said the zoo needs help from Wood County -- home to its second-highest number of visitors -- because of ever-increasing expenses and declining revenue.

"We've been working very hard to keep our costs down and do it in a way so that visitors don't see or feel an impact," she said. "We've reached the point where cutting further is going to mean that our visitors will see and feel an impact."

Although zoo officials would like for Wood County voters to decide the levy this November, county commissioners have the authority to decide if the measure will even appear on the ballot.

Commissioner Tim Brown said the calls and comments he's received have been running about 95 percent against the zoo's proposal.

"I've heard a combination of different concerns -- 'Toledo residents aren't paying for anything in Wood County, why should we pay for stuff up there?'

"I'm hearing, 'This is a tough economy. My family is taxed enough.' I've had some citizens calculating how much money would leave our economy if we paid this," Mr. Brown said.

Commissioner Jim Carter said residents of southern Wood County -- in places like North Baltimore and Fostoria -- say they would not make the trip to Toledo to go to the zoo regularly. If they wanted to go to the zoo, they say, they'd pay the regular admission fee.

"Others have said, 'It's going to jeopardize other issues that might be on the ballot like police and fire, EMS and school levies. I don't want that to be there to confuse the voters,' " Mr. Carter said.

"Others have said, 'How do you get out of it once you get into it? Is it going to be another TARTA?' "

Mr. Carter's reference was to two levies collected by the Toledo Area Regional Area Transit Authority in Perrysburg, Rossford, and seven Lucas County communities.

Although voting majorities in Perrysburg and Rossford have opposed recent renewal and replacement requests, the TARTA taxes continue to be collected there because they were approved in the transit district as a whole.

But Ms. Baker said any Wood County zoo levy would be "absolutely separate" from the Lucas County tax, which will be on the ballot as a renewal this fall.

"If the citizens of Wood County passed it this time and decided in five years that they didn't want to be part of it, they would vote it down and it would no longer be collected," she said.

Currently, Lucas County residents pay a 1-mill, 10-year capital improvements levy for the zoo in addition to the 0.85-mill operating levy.

Ms. Baker said officials have not considered whether to seek the capital improvements levy in Wood County. It will be in effect for five more years in Lucas County.

On the operations side, she said the Lucas County levy brought in $7.6 million in 2007. This year, it's expected to bring in $6.4 million because of reduced property values.

Residents of both Wood and Lucas counties who are not zoo members pay $11 per adult ticket for admission, except on set free admission days for Lucas County residents.

Mr. Brown declined to say whether he would vote to put the zoo levy on the ballot, saying he would "reserve my final judgment until I've heard all sides."

Still, he said, any new taxes could have a negative impact on economic development in Wood County.

"One of the primary responsibilities that commissioners have is to ensure that our counties are competitive in attracting business and industry and people to live here," he said. "If we continue to increase taxes for any and every organization that is eligible to place a levy on the ballot, we are fast going to become a high-tax county and we will erode our ability to be attractive to business and industry."

"That is a primary concern of mine and that doesn't just apply to the zoo," Mr. Brown said. "It applies to all of them. We need to be very careful with what we do on these tax issues."

Commissioner Alvie Perkins and Mr. Carter also did not commit to how they would vote.

"We haven't heard the other side of it yet," Mr. Carter said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.



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