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St. Louis County voters likely to face zoo tax on ballot

Kali takes a swim at the Saint Louis Zoo.
File photo | Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio
Kali takes a swim at the Saint Louis Zoo.

The St. Louis County Council is close to placing a sales tax hikeon the November ballot to pay for improvements for the St. Louis Zoo.

While council members appear to want to let the voters decide, the one-eighth of one cent sales tax could face sharp questions later this year — especially since only St. Louis and St. Louis County directly pay for the attraction.

The council voted 4 to 2 on Tuesday to place the tax increase on the ballot. It will add about 12 cents to a $100 purchase. If approved, the tax will generate about $20 million a year, with the proceeds going to help spruce up the Forest Park campus and help build a breeding facility and potential adventure park in north St. Louis County.

St. Louis Zoo President and CEO Jeffrey Bonner said on Tuesday that the tax could provide an infrastructure injection to the zoo’s main campus — and a big economic development draw for north St. Louis County.

“It will benefit the entire part of that community — and it will benefit St. Louis as a region,” Bonner said. “This is a community that needs a win. And this is a win. This is a big win for St. Louis if we’re successful.”

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. Surrounding areas, like Jefferson and St. Charles counties, do not contribute.

State law does not allow other counties other than St. Louis and St. Louis County to place similar sales tax increases up for a vote. And that law doesn't allow the zoo to charge admission to its main campus in Forest Park. That wasn’t lost on the two dissenting votes, Councilmen Ernie Trakas, R-South St. Louis County, and Mark Harder, R-Ballwin.

“I think the time has come for the zoo to charge admission — not increase an already burdensome tax,” Trakas said. “There are too many infrastructure needs, too many roads in St. Louis County that are despicable and in desperate need of repair and maintenance.”

Added Harder: “I think the idea of a free zoo was great years ago. But I think nothing’s free when you’re trying to maintain the standards that they have maintained.”

For his part, Bonner said the zoo could charge admission to the breeding facility — and let county residents come in for free if they pass the tax.

“And I think people, even tonight, demonstrated their naivety about what an admission charge would have to be,” Bonner said. “But we can charge admission to any new facility. If we create an exciting facility, we let people that support us through their taxes in for free and we charge everyone else that wants to come in, I think we’ll equalize that burden and do it in a fair fashion.”

The tax hike still needs another vote to head to the November ballot.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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