Hamilton County voters will have a levy request from the Cincinnati Zoo on the May ballot, but it's not what the zoo had hoped. County commissioners approved a renewal of the current levy. The zoo requested an increase.
There were essentially four options before the commission: the flat renewal, a five-year renewal adjusted for inflation, a ten-year renewal adjusted for inflation, and no levy at all.
Commission President Todd Portune says it was a challenging decision. "Everybody loves the zoo."
He says it's not just what the public sees and experiences, but also the research and conservation efforts. "The zoo's incredibly popular not just in Cincinnati but it is extremely popular nationwide if not worldwide. And that stems to certain events that take place not the least of which is an international sensation around a baby hippo by the name of Fiona."
He says one of the increased levies the zoo requested would add less than a dollar per $100,000 of valuation to the current property tax bill; the other would add about $3.
But Portune says the commission had to "divorce the issues of the heart from the issues of the mind and try to make the best informed decision that we can." He says there is a larger picture the county faces.
He says the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County is putting a new levy on the ballot in May, and SORTA is considering putting a request on the November ballot. Commissioners could also consider moving up two other levies for votes this year: children's services and developmental disabilities services.
Commissioner Denise Driehaus says as much as she loves the zoo, "Seniors and children are my top priorities."
She says she worries raising the levy for the zoo would hurt the ability to raise money for other needs.
"The zoo, unlike some of the other levies in front of us, they do have the capacity to raise some revenues. I do think there's a capacity there that does not exist for DD or family services or seniors or some of the other groups," Driehaus says.
Commissioner Chris Monzel says he was struck by a report from the Tax Levy Review Committee that recommended the flat renewal. He quoted the report saying Hamilton County has "more life protecting needs to be addressed right now and that the commissioners need to remain frugal in increasing the obligation of the limited resources for a significant number of households for non-essential services."
"This decision has been difficult because everybody does love the zoo. The zoo does great work. But there's a lot of work that is in front of us in this community that we need to address," Monzel says.
The current levy raises about $6.55 million a year for the zoo.
Commissioners rubber stamped the new library levy. State law allows the library to put that measure on the ballot without input from the board. The library already has a 1 mill levy which costs the owner of a $100,000 home just over $28 a year. The new 1 mill levy, if approved by voters, will last for ten years.