Voters Emphatically Reject Columbus Zoo Levy

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Columbus Zoo Emeritus Director, Jack Hanna, addresses zoo levy supporters as early results showed the proposed tax levy was headed for defeat
Columbus Zoo Emeritus Director, Jack Hanna, addresses zoo levy supporters as early results showed the proposed tax levy was headed for defeat

For the first time, Franklin County voters overwhelmingly rejected a tax levy request from the Columbus Zoo levy. The high-profile campaign featured Jack Hanna, popular zoo animals and for the first time, organized opposition. The zoo levy request turned on pocket-book issues.

Columbus Zoo officials wanted Franklin County voters to approve a new permanent levy that would double what property owners contribute to the zoo in Delaware County.

It would have generated about $31 million a year. And zoo officials had tapped most of that money for on-going capital projects at the main zoo.
But voters found numerous reasons to reject it.

How exactly is the Columbus Zoo run? Photo: Valerie/Flickr

How exactly is the Columbus Zoo run? Photo: Valerie/Flickr

Too much at once

For some, like Rita Rice, the additional tax was too much.

“The elderly owning property and on fixed incomes, they just can’t afford a double whammy,” Rice said.

Others, like William Anderson, didn’t like the downtown attraction.

“To put something downtown is absolutely idiotic,” Anderson said.

And Richard Benintendi said the current tax is sufficient.

“I think they’re doing just fine the way they’re doing,” Benintendi said.

All of these reasons combined led to the levy’s sound defeat.

“Taxpayers are just at a breaking point here,” said Mike Gonidakis, who speaks for Citizens for Responsible Taxation, the levy opposition group. “I hope our local elected officials realize that when you raise our taxes multiple times, this is what happens. We vote down these other discretionary things because we can’t continue to sustain additional tax increases on top of tax increases.”


For the first time in memory, the zoo was up against organized opposition, and then came Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brother’s group out of Virginia. It spent more than $20,000 to send out mailers and make robo calls.

Eli Miller speaks for the Ohio chapter. He said voters responded to the group’s message.

“Our members are ecstatic,” Miller said. “They’re ecstatic because they get to keep more money in their pockets.”

At the Columbus Zoo, levy supporters and volunteers were mostly deflated after early results foretold a decisive defeat. Emeritus Director Jack Hanna campaigned personally for the new permanent zoo tax but was disappointed by the outcome.

“I know one thing. I’m never going into politics,” says Hanna.

A monkey at the Columbus Zoo. Photo: J. Todd Poling / Flickr Creative Commons

A monkey at the Columbus Zoo. Photo: J. Todd Poling / Flickr Creative Commons

Aggressive levy

Zoo Board chair Phil Pikelny characterized the levy request as ‘aggressive,’ but he too was little prepared for the voters’ decision and the margin of defeat.

“It is surprising to me to see what the numbers are,” Pikelny said.

Pikelny says it will take several weeks for the zoo board to understand why voters turned on the zoo after years of strong support at the polls. He holds that even after Tuesday’s defeat the zoo still enjoys widespread goodwill.

“It is an asset. You know it is something that brings people to the area and I support it. I think it’s a great thing,” said Jody Dzuranin, a zoo supporter.

What’s next?

The question now for the Zoo’s board is when to place another levy before voters. Pikelny says the zoo absolutely needs a tax levy from the voters of Franklin County.

“Our zoo levy does go through the end of 2015,” Pikelny said. “So we have an opportunity if the county commissioners put it there to go in November. If there is another primary we could go a year from now. And, we would also have November of 2015.”

Pikelny says zoo leaders heard the voters of Franklin County “loud and clear” on Tuesday and any future levy request will have to be “in sync” with what voters want.

Tom Borgerding and Sam Hendren contributed to this story.

  • stickline 65

    Jack Hanna should retire and Pikelny should be fired. The zoo should be self sustaining. You have infuriated so much…your quest for a permanent levy will be defeated as well just for good measure. There are suffering schools and people without jobs and these morons want to build a zoo mecca with homeowners money. YOU JUST DONT GET IT. This county has went mad.

    • John Cowan

      Self-sustaining? By doing what, selling off the animals for human consumption? No zoo in the world is self-sustaining.

      • John Redding

        They make profit from the Amusement Park, The Golf Course, the Hotel, acquiring the wilds, and the zoo itself not to mention other off shoots. The have membership fees, entry fees, it’s because of poor management and extravagant salaries, expansions, trips, perks, etc etc… The zoo is growing outside of what a zoo was meant to be.. It’s become a cancer growth business venture making its owners rich at the expense of struggling tax payers. If the zoo can’t raise it’s fees and become self supporting then it should close. It’s not a part of the Government it’s a “privately owned business”. If I want to go to the zoo I will pay to go as a user what ever the entrance fee is, But forcing me to pay for something I don’t use in a time when the economy is bad, when my neighbors who are being foreclosed on because of an excessive overspending bloated government that is so far in debt they stopped caring about anything but how much they can suck out of the people before the ship sinks. The economy is bad not because of the people it’s bad due to an irresponsible Government.
        The zoo should be self supporting.

  • BullsHorns

    “We’ll try again!!!” they say! Are they ignorant or just stupid? there’s already a huge revenue stream in ticket sales and memberships, why do Franklin county homeowners have to pay anything at all? LIVE WITHIN YOUR MEANS LIKE EVERY OTHER BUSINESS.

    • Thomas Sargent

      You mean like WalMart who between subsidies and tax breaks get about $7.8 billion per year from the taxpayer?

  • The poor

    I’m a resident of Franklin county.
    My question is the Zoo locates in Delaware county but all the residents live in Franklin county are paying the zoo tax, and every time when we visit it we still have to pay for admission… just doesn’t make sense to me.
    We are standing on a unfair ground since other county residents are paying the same admission as I do when they come but I’m paying the extra for Columbus Zoo.

  • nadine

    I think the downtown zoo annex is a terrible idea. All that would do is separate the money they have to work with. The design looked more like an amusement park than a zoo. I am proud of the zoo and glad it’s doing so well but the board needs to get off their high horse and realize that the people are strapped for money and to go to the zoo on a daily rate is very expensive for most families.

  • NoMoreTaxes

    Thank God voters finally said NO more taxes!!! $168 here $1.68 there eventually the tax payers have nothing & gov’t has it all!! AND I agree … No one should be taxed on the zoo!!! They charge admission fees !!! They should be self sustaining … Like any other business!!! If they need more money they should raise admission fees!! If that’s still not enough they should make cuts like every other business … If that’s not enough … Sorry but they need to close or merge together with another zoo!!!

  • joekenobe

    Wow great article Tom and Sam! So what was the margin of defeat? Never mind, why would a lamebrain reader like me want to know that anyway – especially after you took the time to quote Pikelny on being surprised at the number. Welcome to 21st century journalism!

  • JK43123

    Cut big salaries, raise admission a buck, and you’ll be fine. Get over it. And next time, why not ask Delaware County Commissioners for some money, they benefit from the zoo the most!

  • MrUniteUs1

    The property tax per $100,000 worth of property would have increased $23 dollars per year, from $21 to $44. How much if anything. would you like to pay for zoo? Or would you to close the zoo down.. Personally as a child, I really enjoyed visiting the zoo, especially the big cats.

    • John Redding

      Don’t want to pay for the zoo, it’s not in Franklin County and we pay taxes on it. It’s not part of the Government it’s a “private business” that has managed to buy a golf course. What does golf have to do with a zoo? They have an amusement park. What does an amusement park have to do with a zoo? They have a hotel. What does a zoo need to own a hotel for? They had enough money to buy the Wilds in eastern Ohio.if they are hurting so bad where’s all the money coming from for all these expansions, not to mention all the other ventures and investments by the zoo. Jack Hanna doesn’t seem to be hurting in this poor economy. I keep seeing him on TV shows jet setting all over the world rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous in Hollywood and taking as many jungle adventures as he can fit in. Now they want another expansion downtown at our expense. Why can’t Delaware support the zoo it’s in their county and that’s where all the yuppies that love the zoo are. I don’t go to the zoo, and I can barely afford the taxes I already pay. Let’s get the leaches and cancers off the back of a debt ridden country. We’ve gone from 10 trillion in federal debt to 17.5 Trillion since the democrats took the White House and we are turning from a free capitalist country to an over taxed, bankrupt, socialist, slave state.

      • MrUniteUs1

        John I was going by what I read in the article.

        “Columbus Zoo officials wanted Franklin County voters to approve a new permanent levy that would double what property owners contribute to the zoo in Delaware County.”

        But you have local knowledge. Thanks for sharing some details.

        Good article about whose responsible for the massive deficit
        from the conservative CATO institute.

  • Kenny

    F*ck the Koch Brothers. F*ck the Americans For Prosperity! Hope the Koch Brothers eat crap and die. Want them both to burn in HELL!


    Man, there is no way I could afford another $2.50 per month tax increase, even though the zoo generates over $238 million back into the central Ohio economy. I’m so gald it failed. Now, I can go to McDonald’s and get one more happy meal per month.

  • HP

    I personally dont have a problem supporting the zoo. Our family buys passes every year and I have supported every other levy that has come up. This one however was wrong to me on many levels. The downtown thing was just a bone to throw at Columbus because we support the zoo and Delaware gets most of the benefits. The main reason I said no is the “agree to give us your money no questions asked for the rest of your lives” part. Its like giving a teenager a permanent allowance just because they’ve always done their chores before.