Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Zoo's CEO presents case for levy

If county agrees, tax proposal will go before voters

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden's leader made his case for a tax levy renewal Monday, promising the attraction will spend the public's money carefully.

"My job has been to really focus this organization and maximize its potential," Chief Executive Officer Gregg Hudson told the Hamilton County Tax Levy Review Committee.

The committee will advise county commissioners on whether to put the five-year levy renewal on the Nov. 4 ballot. If the answer is yes, voters will have the final decision on whether to give the zoo $6.2 million a year.

The levy is a renewal, but the amount would drop slightly, from 0.42 mills to 0.4 mills, keeping a commitment made when the zoo passed its last levy five years ago. The levy would continue to cost the owner of a $100,000 home less than $10 a year.

"We don't take (the levy) for granted at all," Hudson said. "We know these are tax dollars and there's an extra responsibility with that."

On the other hand, he said, it's difficult for him to predict how much he might be able to reduce the zoo's dependence on public money in the next five years. Factors ranging from the economy to the riots to bad weather have combined to reduce attendance an average of 2.7 percent a year in the last several years, Hudson said.

The levy committee asked a lot of questions, but seemed generally open to the zoo's request.

"My objective is to see that there's not a growth in the rate of taxation," committee member Chris Finney said after the meeting. "When an organization comes in - not in the good times but in the bad times - and says we're meeting that, that's impressive."

The zoo is the first group to seek a levy since the county began requiring outside reviews of all levy-seeking agencies, and New Jersey-based A.T. Hudson & Co. Inc. gave it a generally positive review.

"What we found was very competent stewards of public dollars," said Tim Holland, senior vice president of A.T. Hudson. The Cincinnati zoo gets less public money than others in Ohio while maintaining its position as one of the top zoos in the nation, he said.

A.T. Hudson said the zoo could save $555,000 a year by improving work flow and consolidating supply purchases - changes the zoo has agreed to make. The zoo's balance sheet still is projected to come up $115,000 short over the next five years, Gregg Hudson said.

A.T. Hudson also has suggested the zoo consider raising its admission prices.

E-mail candrews@enquirer.com

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