Sunday, June 10, 2007

AIM Program for the ZOO!

Detroit Free Press

Tri-county property tax could fund zoo

Proposal may be on ballot next summer, but it faces hurdles

Detroit Zoo officials hope the tri-county area can give them something the City of Detroit alone couldn't: a stable stream of tax dollars.

Voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties could be asked next summer for a regional 0.1-mill property tax to fund one of Michigan's largest attractions. As a bonus, schoolchildren in those counties could get free field trips, Zoo Director Ron Kagan said Friday.

The proposal, still being formulated, would complete the transition from decades of management by the City of Detroit to management by the nonprofit Detroit Zoological Society.

In a cost-cutting move last summer, the city turned over zoo management to the society while retaining ownership of zoo assets.

"We were given an opportunity to be independent," Kagan said. "We know that we need a mechanism of public support."

One year after it began, the transition to nonprofit management is bearing fruit, zoo officials said. The zoo has streamlined operations and eliminated about 35 of 235 employees, Gail Warden, the zoo society's chairman, said last week.

Attendance rose 4% last year to just under 1 million. Memberships in the society brought in $3.3 million last year, 10% more than in the previous year.

Even the cash-strapped state government provided $4 million in transition money last year and is expected to give more this year. But those improvements may not mean much without a permanent funding source for the zoo.

Zoos across the country typically get 30% to 40% of their funding from some sort of government, Kagan said. The tax would cost the owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000 about $10 per year and bring in $10 million to a zoo that costs about $24 million annually to run. Taxable value is half or less of a home's market value.

"I believe they should" approve it, said Theresa Ford, 34, of Detroit, who remembers visiting the zoo as a child and takes her three children there several times a year. "That's not that much."

Convincing residents to approve a tax for the zoo may not be easy. In 2000 and 2002, voters rejected so-called culture taxes that would have funded the zoo, the Henry Ford Museum, the Detroit Science Center and other attractions.

"I admire Ron for going forward with it," said Ida Tomlin, chief operation officer at the Detroit Science Center, speaking about Kagan. "There's a saying: 'If you don't ask, you don't get.' "

Kagan said confusion about how the culture taxes would be split may have hurt their chances with voters.

How the new tax would be handled is still being sorted out, Warden said.

The zoo could form a regional authority, similar to the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, to administer the tax, Warden said.

"If we weren't able to pass it, in order for the zoo to operate, we'd have to charge what it cost to keep the zoo going," Warden said.

Kagan said that would mean zoo tickets with prices like those for Red Wings games or something worse -- closing the doors.

"We have to find a solution that the community can embrace," Kagan said.

Kagan said he hopes to meet with political leaders, community groups and others in coming months to spell out the plan once it is finalized. He also plans to do polling to see what voters think.

"I would rather just come here and buy my membership" than pay a tax, said Norma Wong, 39, of Taylor, who visits the zoo several times a year with her children.

Contact JOHN WISELY at 248-351-3696 or

Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.

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