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Tax committee recommends levy increase for Cincinnati Zoo

 colorful tulips and other spring flowers in foreground with historic elephant house in background
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden
Hamilton County commissioners are considering a possible zoo levy increase for the November ballot.

Hamilton County commissioners are considering various proposals as the Cincinnati Zoo's levy comes up for renewal. The Tax Levy Review Committee (TLRC) is recommending a renewal and increase of .57 mills.

The proposed millage would generate $9,733,822 annually and cost $12.86 per year per $100,000 of home value. The current levy costs $9.01 per $100,000 of home value and generates $7,332,842 annually.

The levy has been set at .46 mills since 2008. The zoo levy has been around for 40 years, and has only failed once, according to Lisa Webb, assistant county administrator. She notes the levy was placed on the ballot a year later and approved by voters.

The zoo requested the five-year levy renewal slated for the November ballot include an "increase equal to what it would have received with inflation increases in the 15 years from 2008 through 2023."

RELATED: Cincinnati Zoo to add sea otters, upgrade bear habitat as part of ongoing renovation

The tax levy committee reviewed three options: renewal with no increase; renewal with a five-year inflation increase; and a renewal with a 15-year inflation increase. The board of commissioners could also choose not to approve a levy renewal at all, though that is unlikely.

Committee chairperson Gwen McFarlin says the 15-year inflation recommendation was approved by a vote of 4-2.

The TLRC visited and met with zoo officials, held public hearings, and engaged a consulting firm to do a performance review of the zoo. The consultant, Howard, Wershbale and Co, evaluated operating efficiency, assessed the zoo's contract compliance with Hamilton County, suggested contract provisions, and recommend costs savings and enhancements.

The consultant's report gives the zoo high marks and notes it's a strong economic driver of tourism dollars. It also concludes the zoo has been a good steward of tax dollars, weathered the COVID-19 pandemic well, and "has taken a number of strategic actions that we believe will benefit the next levy cycle."

It concludes "the primary benefit of increasing the levy for inflation would be an increase in the (zoo's) ability to self‐fund capital reinvestment" and notes "our analysis indicates that even if operating results decrease from current levels and the current levy is renewed without an increase, cash flows are expected to remain positive."

McFarlin says that conclusion is why two TLRC members voted against recommending an increase. However, the committee writes in its report to commissioners, "Despite the consultant's conclusion, the zoo subcommittee feels that at least a levy inflation increase calculated under the TLRC's policy guidelines is warranted after 15 years without one."

Webb adds the committee considered what the zoo does to keep its costs down shouldn't count against them when deciding the idea of an inflation increase.

"The zoo has done a ton of efforts which you will see in the consultant's report in terms of trying to hold their spending down — utility usage, the benefits to the community in terms of stormwater runoff, which impacts MSD costs (and) all of those issues — and the committee really felt like ... we were holding them accountable for doing good things; by keeping the levy flat, we weren't allowing them to grow and make more changes to the zoo with the additional funding," Webb says.

On the consultant's recommendation, the committee also recommends the zoo reinstate the Hamilton County Resident Program as outlined in the county's contract with the zoo. It requires the zoo to provide half-price admission to county residents for one full day or two half days each year. That program was stopped during the pandemic and hasn't been reinstated.

RELATED: A baby sloth has arrived at the Cincinnati Zoo

The recommendation also requests the zoo provide a formal plan outlining how the tax funds would benefit county residents.

Links to reports and presentations from the zoo, consultant, and TLRC can be found on the committee's website.

The board will now host one or more public hearings on the zoo levy recommendation. Those dates had not been set as of Tuesday afternoon, but will be posted on the commission's website. The board has to vote on a levy request by Aug. 8.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.