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Hamilton County officials consider whether to raise Cincinnati Zoo tax levy

Posted at 4:58 PM, Jan 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-08 18:43:07-05

CINCINNATI -- Baby hippo Fiona brought lots of visitors and attention to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden over the past year, but she alone can't pay the $37 million annual budget for the 80-acre facility. 

Taxpayers have helped cover the zoo's budget for 35 years, and that will continue. But the amount is up in the air. The levy could be for a renewal, but zoo officials said they need an increase to keep up with inflation and rising expenses. It could be a difference of $2 million.

On Wednesday, Hamilton County's tax levy review chair Gwen McFarland recommended the county commissioners allow a tax levy on the May 8 ballot without a tax increase. 

Jenny O'Donnell chairs the tax levy review subcommittee.

"Our first comment is, put the inflation back in if you can," she said. "I certainly believe that would help the taxpayers as well, but it certainly would help the recipients of the levies."

Zoo Director Thane Maynard said he hopes commissioners will agree with that thinking.

'Over the past 10 years as our levy proceeds were pushed down 10 percent, our expenses in those key areas are up 54 percent," he said. "So, an inflationary increase keeps us from becoming like the Brent Spence Bridge or somebody that needs a total rebuild."

O'Donnell said the subcommittee was also recommending that the zoo consider holding their admission fee flat for Hamilton County residents, but raise the fee for out-of-county residents.

Zoo tickets currently cost $19 for adults and $13 for children, with a $2 discount for tickets bought online. 

Maynard said a multi-tiered admission structure is already in place. 

"We have a bargain price for schools," he said. "We have a lot of funds to help schools that can't afford it and the same thing for residents of Hamilton County."

The committee also suggested the zoo put aside more money for maintenance. Maynard said that's a challenge. Work is already underway to upgrade the bird house. The reptile house was recently remodeled. Underground electrical cables are being replaced. But they still have some big projects looming, like the elephant house roof. 

"We spend $5 million a year on infrastructure, maintenance and repair," Maynard said. "We get after it like nobody's business, but that said the zoo is almost 150 years old."

It's up to the commissioners to make a final decision by Feb. 7. A public hearing is planned for later this month.