This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: As a little girl growing up in rural Southern Illinois, my parents often piled my sister and me into the car, packed a cooler full of our favorite foods, and headed across the bridge toward St. Louis. Our destination: Forest Park. We spent our morning running around the park, ate our picnic lunch, and then strolled through the St. Louis Zoo. My parents did this quite often, and for good reason: It did not cost them anything more than the gas in the car and food in the cooler.
I did not realize it at the time, but we were “free riders,” meaning we benefited from public goods without paying for them. Free riders place an unnecessary burden on taxpayers. To reduce this burden, St. Louisans need to consider long-term funding options to support the institutions like the Zoo.
In 1972, the city and county passed a property tax to fund the operation of the area’s cultural institutions. The Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District (ZMD) was created and initially funded the Zoo, Art Museum, and Science Center. Later, voters included the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Missouri History Museum in the taxing district. Today, a variety of sources fund the institutions, with the ZMD property tax as the primary source.
At the time the city and county levied the tax, the residential taxpayers accounted for 62 percent of the population of the greater St. Louis area. The majority of the typical ZMD customers were contributing to its funding. Conversely, in 2010, the population in the St. Louis and St. Louis County represented only 47 percent of the metro area. Therefore, less than half of the expected patrons were funding the district.
The Zoo Museum District originally was established to help local institutions and residents enrich the area and draw individuals from around the country to experience the cultural wealth located in St. Louis. The initiative did just that, but many years have passed. Why are the minority of expected patrons paying for the whole? It is time to re-examine the Zoo Museum Taxing District.
Providing neighboring counties in both Missouri and Illinois with the option to join the Zoo Museum Taxing District is a good place to start. If the counties choose not to participate, it may be worth considering admission fees.
The bottom line is that St. Louis and St. Louis County need to strongly consider a more efficient funding strategy for these institutions. Many families like mine make the short trip into St. Louis to make priceless memories. However, we should not expect the city and county taxpayers to bear the entire cost of paying for those memories.
Haleigh Albers is an intern at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.