By Gary Budzak
It’s back to the drawing board for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium after voters overwhelmingly rejected its levy request in the May 6 election.
According to unofficial results from the Franklin County Board of Elections, the levy was defeated 92,218 against to 38,914 for, or by a margin of 70.3 percent to 29.7 percent.
“For 35 years, we’ve been in sync with Franklin County voters,” said Columbus Zoo Board President Philip Pikelny. “Obviously, this time around, we were not. Our goal is to get back in sync, because in 2016, it is critical that the zoo has some kind of levy dollars.”
Pikelny said the levy’s failure will not affect any of the Zoo’s programs in 2014 and 2015.
“Heart of Africa is going to open on time (May 22), based on the current levy dollars that are coming in from the levy voted on 9 years ago,” he said.
The Zoo’s current 10-year levy expires in 2015 and costs Franklin County home owners $21.29 per $100,000 valuation annually, and raises $18 to $20 million in revenue a year. The voters rejected a permanent levy that would have cost them $43.75 a year, and raised $32.7 million annually.
“What happened was the people of Franklin County said very loud and clearly they’re not interested in the growth plan that was presented to them,” Pikelny said. “I remember all the opposition saying, ‘We love the Zoo, but we don’t like this plan.’ I think our board would like to know what about it was wrong.”
President and CEO Tom Stalf said levy passage would have permitted the Zoo to make several improvements, such as revitalizing the North American and African forest sections, as well as the Discovery Reef; adding a sea lion exhibit at the front entrance; revamping Jungle Jack’s Landing into an interactive Wild World; and building a satellite facility on the Scioto Peninsula.
The non-profit Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is home to more than 10,000 animals representing more than 575 species. It employs 2,000 people. The Powell complex includes the Zoombezi Bay water park and the Safari Golf Course. The Zoo also operates the 10,000-acre The Wilds conservation center in Muskingum County.
Delaware County benefits from the Zoo in terms of sales taxes and two million visitors annually, Pikelny said. However, its voters have been spared from voting on a levy measure thus far. Pikelny said the board may address the topic in the future.
“It’s absolutely a conversation that the board needs to have,” he said. “But in the immediate term, it’s the voters of Franklin County who have made the pact with the Zoo, and each year get $238 million in economic benefit back to them.”
Pikelny said a Zoo levy will return to the ballot, either this November, or in 2015.
“It doesn’t matter what we did wrong before, what matters is what we’re going to come to the voters with next,” Pikelny said. “I just want to make sure it is the right proposition that they will be in sync with, and be happy to vote for.”
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0904 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.