A Wild Idea: Kansas City Votes Nov. 8 On Proposed Zoo Tax
When I was a kid, I often visited the Kansas City Zoo with my family; after all, we were members of the Friends of the Zoo program, the private booster organization that now runs the park. Thus, participation in zoo-related activities wasn’t uncommon, and even after seeing the more robustly-funded Saint Louis and Omaha zoos in my youth, I never really felt like I was being short-changed with my hometown facility.
No doubt, the Kansas City Zoo’s funding pales in comparison to some other parks. For example, in 2006, the Saint Louis Zoo’s budget topped $46 million, with nearly half of its funding coming from the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District (ZMD), which Saint Louis City and County property tax dollars fund. For perspective, the Kansas City Zoo’s budget last year was roughly a quarter that size, at $11.6 million — $3.4 million of which came directly from the city.
Is there a funding disparity here? Has Kansas City, to date, placed a different priority on its zoological park compared to other metropolitan needs? Sure, on both counts. But according to a report in the Kansas City Star that may be changing, and soon:
The zoo on Nov. 8 will ask voters in Jackson and Clay counties to create a new zoo district by approving a 1/8-cent sales tax. It would give the animal park an assured stream of money safe from the uncertainties of the Kansas City municipal budget.
Supporters say it would vault Kansas City into the ranks of the truly great regional and national zoos.
“We’re looking at this as one chance in a lifetime,” said Randy Wisthoff, the zoo’s director. “It could be the most important thing to happen at the zoo in its 100-year history, or in the next 100-year history.”
When every big government project is marketed as a “one chance in a lifetime” opportunity to taxpayers, I have to say, the buzz of the suggestion wears off pretty quickly for me. Phraseology like this, of course, is intended to engender urgency for a cause, but while that’s a fine marketing strategy, it can facilitate really bad, and oftentimes silly, public policy decisions.
How much would a fully-implemented Kansas City zoo tax generate? Quite a bit, actually.
If approved in both counties — it must at least pass in Jackson to take effect — the zoo district could generate $14.2 million a year. That is more than the zoo’s entire budget now and would allow it to accelerate a master plan that calls for a $15 million penguin exhibit, an orangutan jungle and a new display for big cats. Plans also include a water play area for kids and a giraffe feeding station.
Another Kansas City Star report notes that “zoo officials say they need a regional tax base to compete with better-funded zoos,” but, is the market for zoos so lucrative that Kansas City really needs to raise its zoo game with a special tax? As someone who had the opportunity to appreciate and enjoy the zoo as a child two decades ago, I would love to see Kansas City expand its zoo, but I’m not convinced that (1) it’s needed, (2) the taxpayers need to pay for it, or (3) that the economic effect of the zoo justifies special taxpayer attention.
It’s the prerogative of Kansas City area residents to determine their tax burdens, so if they see a benefit from the tax, it shall be. But as someone from a family of zoo supporters, I’m not convinced it’s necessary.
Note: Platte County and Cass County, both of which contain parts of Kansas City, will not vote on the zoo tax next week. Residents in those counties might vote on the issue sometime in 2012.