St. Louis Zoo needs more money for expansion plans

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ST. LOUIS, MO (KPLR) – The St. Louis Zoo has major plans for expansion, but will there be enough money to pay for it? That’s the concern of at least one member of the Zoo Museum District Board, which oversees the tax revenue the zoo receives. Charlie Valier says neighboring counties should be making a contribution, while zoo officials say he is jumping the gun.

The conversation started at a Monday night meeting of the board where the property tax rate to benefit the zoo was raised to its limit.

Valier began discussing the massive plans unveiled by zoo officials last week for the old Forest Park Hospital property. A gondola across Highway 40, a hotel, and expanded animal habitats are just part of what is being proposed in a plan set to be implemented over the next two or three decades.

Valier says with the tax rate at its peak and property values in the St. Louis area at a plateau, the costs for the zoo are likely to outrun the plans.

“Three and a half million people went to the zoo last year. It is the single largest attraction for residents and visitors. But there has to be a way to pay for it. Nothing is for free.”

He points out that sixty percent of zoo visitors come from outside St. Louis city and county, the areas currently giving tax money to the zoo. He believes neighboring counties like St. Charles, which has as many zoo visitors annually as the city, along with Jefferson, Franklin, St. Clair and Madison, should help pay. That would happen either through including them in the Zoo Museum District or charging admission for residents from outside St. Louis city and county.

But zoo officials say they have no intention of making any changes to how they collect revenue, and say Valier is jumping the gun.

President and CEO Jeffrey Bonner says the tax money Valier is so worried about makes up only part of the zoo’s budget.

“I think one of the critical points that people don’t realize is less than a third of our budget comes from taxes, so taxes don’t go to capital projects here. They go to care of animals and people who take care of animals.”

He says tax money is not and will not be used for what he terms, “capital projects” like the expansion being proposed. In other words, the tax revenue coming in is irrelevant to the expansion.

Further, he says there is no discussion of charging admission for anyone right now.

Bonner also points out that no strategic planning has been done on the expansion project. In other words, plans for paying the bill have not even been started.

Valier says he understands it’s early in the game, but just the same, he believes the tax revenue portion of the zoo’s funding doesn’t look like it will be on the rise any time soon.

“I think it is a conversation that has to take place and I think all the options need to be weighed,” he said.