The Saint Louis Zoo is one of the finest institutions of its kind, and is a source of civic and scientific pride for Saint Louisans. It’s also in a $50 million hole. For nearly half a century, the zoo and other local institutions have been funded in part by property taxes levied within the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District (Saint Louis City and County). In 2015, that property tax brought in $21.5 million in revenue to the zoo. But zoo officials claim those and other revenues aren’t enough to keep up with maintenance and planned expansion costs. So there is now a proposal making its way through the General Assembly that would allow for a sales tax increase in Saint Louis City along with Saint Louis, Saint Charles, Jefferson, and Franklin counties to bolster the zoo’s budget.
There are a number of questions surrounding this proposal, and how to fund the Zoo in general. This blog is not the place to exhaustively consider all of them. But there are two essential points that should be at the core of any discussion of the Zoo’s funding future.
First: Should shoppers across the four counties and the city—rich and poor alike—pay for a zoo they may never visit or directly benefit from? Sales taxes are easy to collect, and they can generate significant revenue, but that doesn’t mean they are an economically sound or fair way to fund the zoo. Is it fair to tax someone buying wine in Defiance or Augusta in order to support a zoo miles away in Saint Louis City, that they may never patronize? Moreover, should those in the Zoo-Museum district—working poor included—be taxed twice for the zoo?
One might object that many of the zoo’s visitors come from outside the Zoo-Museum District, often from Saint Charles, Jefferson, and Franklin counties, so they should help pay for this regional amenity. I wholeheartedly agree that those who visit the zoo should pay for it. But a sales tax across those counties would tax far more people who don’t visit the zoo than people who do. As a percentage of total annual visitors, residents from the three above-mentioned counties only comprise 13% of the zoo’s attendance. Now, one could argue that since some people in the Zoo-Museum District pay property taxes for the zoo and never visit, others in the region can make that sacrifice, too. While this reasoning might appeal to those already paying the zoo tax, exporting bad policy doesn’t make it any better.
Secondly: Can the Saint Louis region stomach any more sales tax increases? In many parts of the city and county, sales tax rates are close to 11%, and there is an almost never-ending list of public projects asking for sales tax hikes. In Saint Louis City, a MetroLink expansion proposal includes a 0.5% sales tax hike; in Saint Louis County, Proposition P includes a 0.5% hike for public safety. At what point will the sales tax capacity of the Saint Louis region be exhausted, leaving no room for other projects and initiatives?
It’s important that the zoo has the funds necessary to keep its property and infrastructure in good repair, and no doubt feeding elephants isn’t cheap. But that doesn’t mean just any funding mechanism is appropriate to keep the zoo running. Leaders and policymakers in the region should carefully consider the funding options before them, and not be too hasty to dismiss options like user fees as an appropriate path toward a sustainable funding future.