Commissioners of the Zoo-Museum District, on September 30, voted to raise the property tax rate that funds five St. Louis cultural institutions to the highest level permitted by state law. Those institutions are the St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri Botanical Garden, Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Science Center and Missouri History Museum.
Charles Valier, one of the Zoo-Museum District's commissioners, says declining property values in St. Louis City and County have led to a decrease in available revenue.
He acknowledges that the idea of raising additional revenue for the cultural institutions is not new, however there is a renewed sense of urgency as a financial squeeze sets in. Valier is calling for the beginning of a conversation to ensure the future of the institutions, a plan which, he says, could take years to develop.
Among the suggestions for increasing revenue has been to charge admission and to expand the tax base beyond St. Louis City and St. Louis County. Valier, who helped create the Zoo-Museum District as a state representative about forty years ago, would much prefer the second option.
"Why are you going to make people who are already paying the taxes pay again? It just doesn't seem fair to me. And frankly, one of the reasons that we made certain that these institutions were free, was that it made these institutions available to people of lesser means that otherwise could not afford it. I think that is part of our civic purpose, and I can't see myself changing from that view," said Valier.
Terry Jones, chair of the department of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, agreed.
"It's embedded in our civic culture that these institutions and again, especially the zoo, are for everyone," said Jones. "We have developed this culture of 'free zoo' - the words go together. To break that civic culture would be very difficult for St. Louis."
The zoo, unlike some of the other institutions, is doing fairly well financially because it has received substantial private donations.
According to Jones and Valier, it would be easier to expand the tax base into Missouri counties such as St. Charles than into Illinois counties. But even in St. Charles, the expansion would require buy-in from local business and political leaders.
St. Louis on the Air producer Alex Heuer reached out to all five Zoo-Museum District directors to be on the show and express their views. All five declined to be on the show, although several sent statements.
Statement from the Missouri History Museum
The Missouri History Museum is grateful for the support it has received from the residents and taxpayers of the Zoo-Museum District of the City of Saint Louis and Saint Louis County over the past 25 years. While we understand and appreciate the thoughtful discussion that periodically takes place in the community about funding the future needs of both the ZMD and other important priorities of the region, we wish to be clear that the Museum has not been a party to the current discussion and is not advocating or endorsing any proposal to increase taxes, charge admission, or expand the current district.
Statement from the St. Louis Science Center
The Saint Louis Science Center feels very fortunate to receive support from St. Louis City and County tax payers. At this time we have nothing to add to this discussion.
Excerpted statement from the St. Louis Zoo, a letter which was sent to its Board members
Our current focus is entirely on The Living Promise Campaign. Specifically, we are focused exclusively on building McDonnell Polar Bear Point and, thereafter, on the new Grizzly Ridge. We have no wish to engage in any conversation about the Zoo’s tax base at present as our focus is on our Campaign and the Zoo’s current Strategic Plan.
With regard to our recent property acquisition, we have firmly stated that the Expansion Site Framework Plan is a very long-term approach and that any full development of any final plan would be over 20 to 30 years. We have also stressed that we will begin a new strategic planning process as soon as possible. As part of that process, we will produce a master plan that will address the specifics of our capital needs. It will detail the most basic aspects of our capital construction projects: what we will build; why we will build it; where it will be built; when we will build it; what it will cost to build; and what it will cost to operate. Absent having the answers to these basic questions, it is premature to have specific conversations on issues related to funding. As a consequence, we will continue to keep our focus on The Living Promise Campaign, while beginning to engage in planning for the Zoo’s future.
We recognize that others may speculate about the Zoo’s funding needs, but we consider that to be ill-advised given that we have not yet even begun to engage in the strategic planning process.
Finally, we need to stress our position that the Zoo and its leaders would rather develop this property right instead of doing it fast. It will be some time before we are in a position to discuss future economic scenarios.