A recent editorial in the Post-Dispatch by former Clayton Mayor Ben Uchitelle once again set off a debate on how the region funds the Zoo Museum District. Mr. Uchitelle recommended the implementation of entrance fees. The board that runs the district says there are no plans to begin charging admission, with one member stating that he’d rather see property taxes go up in Saint Charles and Jefferson County instead.
Why the need for entrance fees or higher taxes? The district’s institutions, like the zoo, art museum, and history museum, face mounting expenses. For example, just from 2011 to 2014, the art museum’s operating losses grew from $20.2 million to $25.5 million. The zoo’s expenses have also been rising steadily. Add to that ambitious plans for capital improvements (like a gondola over Interstate 64/US 40), and the desire for more revenue is understandable.
The Zoo Museum District depends heavily on property tax revenue. The district’s museums receive the vast majority of their support via property taxes. The zoo, even with private supporters and charges for services, still relies on tax revenue for almost 40 percent of its budget. That property tax, (8 cents per hundred dollars of assessed value in Saint Louis City and County) is maxed out.
Supporters of reform want to broaden the district’s revenue base. They argue it is unfair that Saint Louis City and County taxpayers bear the entire burden of supporting these institutions. Only an estimated 39 percent of zoo visitors come from Saint Louis City and County. Twelve percent are from Saint Charles and Jefferson County, and 37 percent are visiting from outside the Saint Louis area altogether. Mr. Uchitelle’s proposal to make zoo and museum goers pay some sort of entrance fee would allow visitors to jointly invest in these destinations. After all, admission fees are the norm at other popular institutions in Saint Louis, like the Cardinals (obviously), the Botanical Garden, and even the Jewel Box. In other cities, zoos (including the country’s most visited) and museums charge entrance fees without losing their appeal.
Still, to many the idea that zoo or museum improvements should be paid by those who use them is an anathema. They argue that residents at large, regardless of whether they enjoy or approve of the institutions, should have to ensure zoo visitors always get free admission. And because some residents of Saint Charles County and Jefferson County use the zoo, the “fair” method of increasing revenue would be to charge all the residents of Saint Charles and Jefferson County.
There is nothing wrong with putting the question on the ballot in neighboring counties, but convincing residents in Saint Charles and Jefferson County to pay for a luxury hotel and gondolas in Saint Louis City via local property taxes is going to be a hard a sell, “fairness” aside. If the zoo really needs more money for large-scale improvements, perhaps they should take the idea of fairness to its logical conclusion and raise the money from people who actually visit, wherever they might come from.