As St. Louis Zoo Eyes Sales Tax Hike, Critic Says 'Not So Fast'

Last month, the St. Louis Zoo announced that it would be purchasing 425 acres in north county, with building plans ranging from an endangered species habitat to a safari-like visitor experience. Before the project can break ground, however, zoo advocacy groups hope to pass a one-eighth sales tax increase for St. Louis city and county. But don't expect Proposition Z to hike up your taxes without opposition.

Tom Sullivan is a University City resident who has been fighting tax hikes involving the zoo since 1989. Almost 30 years ago, propositions A, B, and C would have added the St. Louis Symphony to the zoo/museum district, as well as increased the tax rate. Sullivan helped torpedo that. Just three years later, in 1992, Sullivan took on both an expansion of the Saint Louis Art Museum and Proposition P, which would have raised taxes for Forest Park. His side was victorious then too.

And now, he's ready to oppose Prop Z. Sullivan intends to testify against the tax proposal at the St. Louis County Council's committee of the whole tomorrow at 3 p.m. at the County Government Center (41 South Central Avenue).

"Sales tax is already through the roof and it falls on people who have it the hardest," he says.

On April 1, sales tax in the city rose to 10.2 percent after voters approved Prop P, aimed at increasing compensation for police and fire. St. Louis County voters approved a similar increase in 2017, and now the sales tax within several areas in the county already floats above ten percent.

Sullivan believes there is a simple fix for the zoo's financial needs: Begin charging admission. 

Using the highly popular San Diego Zoo as an example, which charges adults a lofty $54 admission fee and children $44, Sullivan believes that if the St. Louis Zoo began charging adults a $10 admission fee and children $5, it could capitalize on its three million visitors a year, negating the need for a tax increase.

To those who would bare arms to keep admission free, Sullivan retorts, "The problem is, it's not free" — referencing the property taxes that city and county residents already pay to cover the costs of running the zoo.

However, Sullivan does believe that St. Louis city and county residents should still receive free admission because of the property tax they pay; he believes only outsiders should be charged.

If Prop Z finds approval with city and county voters, it would garner $25 million annually and would go to supporting the new facility as well as a $50 million maintenance backlog at the Forest Park flagship. (The zoo/museum district currently collects about $77 million annually.)

While Sullivan does not believe charging admissions would bring in the same amount, he argues that it would be close. And though it would mean changing state law to charge admissions to the zoo, Sullivan points out that there is a provision in the law stating that admission can be charged to additional facilities — which could, indeed, encompass any new venue being built in north county.

"I think they need to do a lot more due diligence," says Sullivan as what exactly the new facility will be has yet to be revealed.

After the vote to hear testimony tomorrow, the council may approve Proposition Z to be on its agenda at 6:30 p.m.  If it is placed on the agenda, it could see final approval as early as next week, and placement on general election ballots this fall after that.

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