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St. Louis County voters could decide on sales tax hike for St. Louis Zoo

Two grizzly bear cubs arrived at the St. Louis Zoo in the summer of 2017.
File photo I David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Two grizzly bear cubs arrived at the St. Louis Zoo in the summer of 2017.

St. Louis County voters may be asked to put more tax money into improving the St. Louis Zoo.

St. Louis County Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray introduced a 1/8th of one cent sales tax increase at Tuesday’s council meeting. If County Council members put it on the ballot, St. Louis County voters would decide on the measure on Nov. 6. The tax would add about 12 cents to a $100 purchase.

Walton Gray’s legislation allows the proceeds from the tax to provide funds “for the management and care of animals and other zoological activities and zoological facilities of the St. Louis Zoological Park Subdistrict.”

Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, sponsored state legislation allowing St. Louis and St. Louis County to put the zoo sales tax up for a vote. Gov. Eric Greitens signed that measure into law in mid-2017.

She said last year that the tax increase could shore up the zoo’s infrastructure and help pay for a breeding facility in north St. Louis County.

"This would be for an aging infrastructure that's a hundred years old. And they have an underground tour that I wish everybody in St. Louis could take,” Walsh said during a April 2017 edition of Politically Speaking. “Because you could really see the need there.”

Walton Gray said on Wednesday that the breeding facility could be an “economic boon” for north St. Louis County, especially the area north of I-270.  

“That’s what I’m looking for — any type of economic development in that area is great,” Walton Gray said. “We have to do something about north county. We’re losing a lot of retail, so we need to do something.”

St. Louis and St. Louis County residents already send some of their property taxes to help pay for the zoo. Currently, property owners in those areas contribute 8 cents per every $100 of assessed property.

State law does not allow other places, like Jefferson and St. Charles counties, to place similar sales tax increases up for a vote. And that law doesn't allow zoo to charge admission to its main campus in Forest Park. However, the zoo could require people who don’t live in St. Louis or St. Louis County to pay to get into new attractions.

“I would just be very saddened if our zoo had to start charging a fee and checking IDs at the door to make sure, via your ZIP code, whether you come in or pay five or 10 bucks,” Walsh said last year.

Sunset push

Councilman Mark Harder said he will try to have the zoo sales tax end after 10 years — and make clear that people from outside of St. Louis County would have to pay to get into the breeding center. 

Kali greets his visitors.
Credit File photo I Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
Kali greets his visitors at the St Louis Zoo.

“I’m a big proponent of the zoo — it’s a great zoo,” Harder said. “But I think the time has come for folks outside of the zoo area to pay their share as well. The zoo can’t get a sales tax put on another county’s sales tax chart. But they could charge these people. And we do have many people who use the zoo who are outside the St. Louis County and St. Louis city area.”

As long as residents from surrounding counties and elsewhere continue to enjoy the zoo without paying for it, Harder predicts the proposed sales tax increase could be a tough sell at the ballot box.

“A 10-year sunset allows at least the residents to come back and look at this to say ‘OK, we’ve done this for 10 years. Let’s find a different way or a different mechanism to fund this,” Harder said. “But if you don’t put that in, the tax goes on generationally.”

Walton Gray said she expects to have a committee look into the sales tax proposal, which means it could be a few weeks before any final action is taken.

The St. Louis Zoo Association has given $100,000 to a committee known as Friends of the St. Louis Zoo, to support campaign efforts.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.