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Caged heat


Funding for the OKC Zoo draws scrutiny from a city councilman.

Clifton Adcock July 25th, 2012

When Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid began talking about a re-examination of the city’s dedicated sales taxes during a City Council meeting last month, little did he know he was grabbing a tiger by the tail.

Credit: Shannon Cornman

The comments were part of a larger discussion among the council at its June 16 meeting about what to do with a $1.3 million surplus to the city budget and whether to put that money into expanded bus service, street maintenance, or the hiring of more police officers.

Shadid questioned why there were no dedicated funding sources for police and other services, making them subject to the vagaries of tax collections, while the Oklahoma City Zoo and Oklahoma State Fairgrounds have dedicated sources: The zoo gets a one-eighth cent sales tax and the fairgrounds receive part of the hotel/motel tax.

He suggested the zoo tax be looked at, and added that there should be a review of the hotel/motel tax portion for the fairgrounds after that entity receives MAPS 3 funds for new projects.


Talk about it

Shadid’s comments came under fire from an editorial in The Oklahoman and a KWTV Channel 9 commentary by anchor Kelly Ogle. Shadid fired back at the newspaper during a subsequent council meeting, calling its assessment of the issue “intellectually dishonest.”

In an interview with Oklahoma Gazette, Shadid said he does not want to de-fund the zoo. He said he hopes to spur public dialogue about the city’s dedicated funding mechanisms, explore if other projects or services can benefit from such sources, and determine whether current dedicated funding sources are performing optimally.

Shadid said he has no qualms about using the one-eighth cent sales tax to complete the zoo’s 10-year, $30 million master plan. But the councilman said what happens to all or part of the tax money after the plan’s completion should be open for discussion.

Part of the sales tax is going toward $4 million in bonds for the zoo, estimated to be paid off by 2019, zoo officials said.

In addition, Shadid said he invites discussion about the 5.5 percent hotel/ motel tax — six-elevenths of which goes toward 20-year bond obligations for fairground improvements — and whether it should be adjusted to a regional average. If that tax should be raised, Shadid said, the next step would be to determine if the additional funds should be dedicated to another entity or used to offset other taxes that normally would go into the general fund.

Ed Shadid
Credit: Mark Hancock

“I don’t think you can look at any of these things in a vacuum,” Shadid said. “Everything’s interconnected.”


Showing dedication

Shadid said the zoo operates with a yearly surplus of approximately $6.5 million generated from revenue and from the sales tax that goes into capital expenditures and improvements. While he said money for zoo improvements was necessary when voters passed the dedicated sales tax in the early 1990s, perhaps it could now be used for other sorely needed city projects.

“Year after year, we’re trying to figure out how to create money for this or that. If you’ve got one area that’s generating enormous surpluses, I think you need to have a dialogue about that,” Shadid said.

But not everyone agrees that zoo money left over after operating expenses can be called a “surplus.” Dwight Scott, the zoo’s executive director and CEO, said those dollars are needed for future improvements.

About every 10 years, the zoo unveils a new master plan, Scott said.

The most recently completed plan ended with the elephant exhibit, a popular attraction. The current 10-year plan calls for a new centrally located restaurant, a veterinary clinic, a giraffe exhibit, upgrading and moving the herpetarium, and major renovations to the aquatic center.

Even after those projects are completed, Scott added, there are still several antiquated attractions that need upgrading or replacement.

“We have exhibits that need a lot of work,” Scott said. “I think what the sales tax has enabled us to do is exceed our guest expectations.”

If the dedicated sales tax were to be eliminated or reduced, the zoo may have to raise admission prices to be able to perform at the level it currently does, Scott said.

He said zoo officials are hoping to meet with Shadid and discuss the matter.

Shadid said his comments that the zoo is not a core city service were probably off the mark, but maintained that a public conversation about the issue should go forward.

“We came together as a community and we built an incredible facility,” he said. “Now let’s think about maintaining it at a world-class level, maintain it and see if there’s anything else in the city that’s like the zoo was 22 years ago.”

 
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