ALAMEDA ELECTIONS '12: Measure would raise taxes for Oakland Zoo
Updated at 11:18 a.m. Friday, September 14 to include comments offered by Oakland Zoo officials after this story was posted.
OAKLAND – Elephants lope through their enclosure and lions doze in the midday sun at the Oakland Zoo. Moms wheel strollers through the grounds and groups of school kids run from one exhibit to another to marvel at the animals eating, climbing trees or just chattering.
It’s what you would expect at a zoo.
But a battle has been taking place involving the future of the popular attraction, which has been located in its present spot in Knowland Park since 1939. Four years in the making, the latest conflict revolves around county Measure 1A on the November ballot.
The measure, if approved, will levy a $12 annual parcel tax on residential property countywide and $72 on commercial parcels to upgrade a variety of facilities and maintain educational programs for school children at the zoo, which is owned by the City of Oakland and operated by the nonprofit East Bay Zoological Society. The tax would raise about $5.5 million annually for 25 years or $137 million.
Property owners would pay the tax for 25 years, though there are exemptions for senior citizens and low-income homeowners. A two-thirds majority is needed to pass.
The ordinance that put the tax on the ballot says the zoo’s existing revenue is inadequate to cover the cost of humane care and veterinary treatment for its animals and maintenance of its services and facilities. The zoological society took in $19.3 million in revenues in 2010, its most recent tax return shows, with about $6.1 million left over after that year’s expenses; a year earlier, it ran a $291,258 deficit.
According to the ballot language, parcel tax money would be used to upgrade water, heating and cooling systems used in the exhibits and to make improvements to animal enclosures that include climbing structures for gibbons, an immersion pool for hyenas, additional room for tigers and chimpanzees and repair of leaking reptile enclosures. The money would also be used to repair aged sewer and drainage systems, replace outdated lighting and electrical systems and perform needed maintenance throughout the property, the ballot language says.
Oakland Zoo Executive Director Joel Parrott said zoos can seek private funds to build new facilities but private sources are not interested in providing funds for ongoing capital improvement or maintenance.
Some of the parcel tax funds would be used to maintain the zoo’s maximum admission price of $14, which Parrott said is affordable in comparison to fees charged by other zoos. The San Francisco Zoo charges $15 for admission.
If voters approve the tax, money would be also used to cover the cost of placing it on the ballot and could also be used to fight legal challenges to it. Expenditures would be subject to audits and an oversight committee would be drafted to make sure money is being spent according to the expenditure plan in the ballot, and county supervisors could suspend disbursement of parcel tax funds if they determine they aren’t being spent properly.
The tax ceases if the zoo closes, though it would continue if the city conveyed it to a nonprofit like the zoological society.
But the tax has its detractors.
Environmentalists, including Friends of Knowland Park, claimed the measure is just another part of the zoo’s ongoing plans to expand its presence in the park by another 54 acres. In their argument against the tax they noted that the money could be used for “constructing, expanding, remodeling, renovating, furnishing, equipping, or financing of facilities,” and projects financed with parcel tax revenues can “enhanced, supplemented or expanded to the extent that funds are available and funding allocations may be upgraded to accommodate changing needs.”
Parrott said the parcel tax money is strictly for repairs, maintenance and ongoing educational programs at the zoo's existing facilities, and not a zoo expansion approved by the Oakland City Council in 1998. He said the measure does give the zoo some flexibility, which would be needed in the event of earthquake damage or other unforseen circumstances.
The council approved the expansion plans after the zoo’s managers struck an agreement with opponents over the plans. But opposition flared up again four years ago when the project was ready for construction based on revised plans that opponents claim are larger than originally approved.
In a lawsuit, the Friends and other environmental groups insisted that zoo officials should have submitted a more comprehensive environmental impact report to identify the real harm the expansion project would cause to the Knowland Park ecosystem. But in July an Alameda County judge ruled against the opponents and set the stage for the project to begin.
Environmentalists said the project will cut into prime habitat for animal species including foxes, owls and the endangered Alameda whipsnake, though zoo officials have claimed the project won’t have a major impact on the environment and that any effects will be mitigated by their plans.
Work has already begun on a veterinary hospital where zoo staff will care for injured and sick animals. Zoo officials also hope to build an interpretative center, a new animal exhibit and a gondola ride to bring visitors up to new attractions further up the Knowland Park ridgeline, according to news reports.
In addition to environmental considerations, Ruth Malone, co-chair of Friends of Knowland Park said she thinks the measure isn’t the best way to spend public money given the city’s financial plight.
“At a time when so many things are being cut, we have this special measure for the zoo. Is this the best way to set priorities?” she asked. “I don’t think this is a priority, given everything else.”
But the real value of the tax is in the educational value the zoo offers, Parrott said.
“It’s taxpayers saying we want cultural institutions," he said. “We want a quality of life and are willing to put a dollar a month into this and have one of the best zoological facilities in the state.”