Voters could weigh new zoo tax on November ballot to fund expansion


County Executive Steve Stenger, second from left, listens to Rep. Bob Burns, D-Affton, address the council last year, left to right: 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack. Photo by Gloria Lloyd.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor

St. Louis County and city voters could double the taxes they pay to the St. Louis Zoo if they approve a new sales tax for a zoo expansion in north county.
The zoo is asking the County Council to approve a new sales tax of one-eighth of 1 cent. The proposal could be given final approval by the council as soon as Tuesday, April 24.
Like the existing Zoo-Museum District that county and city residents pay property taxes into, the new tax would not expand to St. Charles, Jefferson or Franklin counties after state legislators from those counties balked last year.

The zoo is part of the Zoo-Museum District that is funded at $80 million a year by county and city property taxes and also includes the Science Center, the Art Museum, the History Museum and the Missouri Botanical Garden. All are free to enter except the Botanical Garden.

Of the property tax, $22.5 million goes to the Zoo. The sales tax would add $25 million more a year. On an $8 purchase, the new tax would add 1 cent.

A nonprofit organization affiliated with the Zoo, the St. Louis Zoo Association, is spending $7 million to buy 425 acres in north county for a breeding facility for endangered species, animal science research center and potentially, a public attraction like a safari park.

A previous plan to buy Grant’s Farm and use it for the facility fell through when a study showed that county voters did not support a tax to fund that purchase.

A new state law allows the  Zoo to charge admission to any new facility, which it is prohibited from doing at its original Forest Park campus. City and county residents would get in free, however.

“We can reach an audience, and part of your community, that’s been underserved,” Zoo CEO Jeffrey Bonner told the council at a hearing last week. “It could be transformational.”

The project could also bring 300 jobs, he said. That was attractive to the north county legislators on the council, bill sponsor and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, and 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, who said she got such positive feedback from her constituents that the Zoo should use their comments in its advertising campaigns.

But 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, was still on the fence at the time the Call went to press. On one hand, he believes voters should be able to decide for themselves if they support the new Zoo project. On the other hand, he does not support the idea of a new sales tax and thinks existing sales taxes are already too high.

“As a general rule, I’m not a tax-and-spend guy,” Trakas said, but added, “However, it’s not the council’s job to decide for the people when the people have an opportunity to decide for themselves.”

He also believes the Zoo should charge admission in Forest Park.

Too many questions surround the tax to put it on the ballot, county watchdog Tom Sullivan said.

“This is part of the checks and balances,” Sullivan said. “The voters should know what they’re getting.”

But the potential economic-development opportunities in north county appeal to County Executive Steve Stenger.

“I am supportive of the Zoo’s leadership and its effort to place this initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot,” Stenger said in a statement. “If approved by voters, this proposal will generate a significant investment in North St. Louis County which, in turn, will benefit the entire region.”