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Government, Politics & Issues

Zoo seeks sales-tax increase in St. Louis County

Kali takes a swim at the Saint Louis Zoo.
File photo | Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio
Kali takes a swim at the Saint Louis Zoo. Supporters of the facility want to raise sales taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements - and to help build a new breeding facility and possible adventure park.

St. Louis County residents will decide in November whether to spend more tax money to bolster the St. Louis Zoo.

The proposal would help spruce up the world-class attraction and build a new breeding facility and potential adventure park in north St. Louis County. But backers will need to convince county voters to raise the sales tax when some surrounding areas don’t directly contribute to the zoo.

The one-eighth-of-one-cent sales tax hike will add about 12 cents to a $100 purchase. If approved, the tax will generate about $20 million a year.

St. Louis Zoo President and CEO Jeffrey Bonner is especially excited about the new facility, which he said will be a shot in the arm for north St. Louis County.

“We’ve got a lot of different species. And in many cases, we don’t have enough of each species,” Bonner said. “Of course, they’re the rare species — the most critically endangered. And if you want to assure that those species will be able to be viewed by your children and your grandchildren, we’ve got to act now to enhance our ability to sustain those collections.”

Bonner said the zoo will almost certainly charge admission to the new facility, except for residents of counties that adopt a sales tax. If the sales tax passes, he estimates it will take about five years to build the complex in the Spanish Lake area.

“We’re talking about a different kind of zoo. I call it the ‘inside-out’ zoo,” Bonner said. “I mean, imagine where you’re kind of constrained, and the animals are all the way around you. That’s a very, very different thing than what we have now. And in light of that, I think it’s fair to say that we’ll do a wonderful job of connecting people with living things. And that’s really our goal.”

As of last week, the St. Louis Zoo Association has contributed about $300,000 to pass the tax. Some people that have worked for St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s political campaigns are also working for the committee seeking to approve the measure.

Stenger said the proposal would help North County.

“I am very much in favor of putting in the ballot and letting our citizens decide that important issue,” Stenger said earlier this year. “And I think if it were to move forward, I think it could have some exciting impacts on our county. You’re talking about a development that would occur in North County, which desperately needs that type of development.”

Double taxation?

St. Louis and St. Louis County residents already pay for the zoo with their property taxes. Surrounding areas, like St. Charles, Franklin and Jefferson counties, do not. And Bonner said state law bars the zoo from charging admission to its main campus.

St. Louis County Councilman Mark Harder said the fact that the burden of paying for the zoo falls solely on city and county residents will affect how people act at the ballot box.

“I don’t think we need to fund this on the backs of people and the sales tax — especially people who can’t afford it,” said Harder, R-Ballwin.

State legislation authorizing the sales tax for the zoo originally included places like Jefferson and Franklin counties, but was taken out of the final version.

“You should not take that to mean that we will not go back. We will. I’m convinced of it,” Bonner said. “I don’t think that we should go back now, because we won’t win then. Given the opposition we have in the Missouri Senate, we won’t win. But in four years, will that be the circumstance? I don’t think so.”

Bonner also said there’s nothing stopping a place like St. Charles County from sending taxpayer money to support the zoo. Under that scenario, Bonner said, St. Charles County residents could get into the new facility for free.

But he emphasized that the zoo isn’t planning on charging admission for the main zoo anytime soon.

“We’re trying to take a very important public initiative, a public-private partnership, and put it in a part of our community that frankly could benefit very much from the economic development,” Bonner said. “And I think the people of that part of our community are going to think that this is a wonderful, wonderful thing. It will benefit the entire part of that community — and it will benefit St. Louis as a region.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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