CLAYTON • Shall St. Louis County impose a one-eighth of 1 percent sales tax to support the St. Louis Zoo?
Voters will get the chance to decide on Nov. 6, after the St. Louis County Council on Tuesday night voted 5-2 to place the question on the ballot.
If St. Louis County voters approve the tax, they would have free admission to an adventure park the zoo plans to build in north St. Louis County, according to legislation passed by the council, which County Executive Steve Stenger is expected to sign.
A similar tax measure is expected to be introduced in the city of St. Louis. The tax would add one cent to an $8 purchase and would raise more than $20 million a year in St. Louis County and $5 million in the city. The zoo already gets $22 million from property taxes in the city and county.
Any visitor to the new attraction who doesn’t live in a county that approved the tax, called Proposition Z, would have to pay an admission fee that has not been determined. A one-day ticket to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is $54 for adults and $44 for children 3-11. Admission to the existing zoo in Forest Park remains free under state law.
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Last year, Missouri passed a law allowing the zoo to ask voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County to raise sales taxes by up to an eighth of 1 percent to fund the zoo’s conservation, breeding and infrastructure needs. The law also allows the zoo to charge admission for newly built facilities.
Earlier this year, officials announced that the St. Louis Zoo Association, a private, nonprofit group that oversees fundraising, planned to buy 425 acres from the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562 for $7.1 million. The money came from two anonymous donors.
The zoo plans to set aside 175 acres for a safari and wildlife adventure park that could include zip lines and overnight camping. The zoo would use the remaining 250 acres for a breeding facility.
The measure has brought out people with strong views for and against the sales tax.
“St. Louis County in general and north St. Louis County specifically face some serious issues,” said Tom Sullivan, a local government watchdog from University City who has opposed the tax. “Failing school districts. Crime. Homelessness. The list goes on. Not one of these issues will be helped by giving tens of millions of dollars to a zoo that’s already swimming in money.”
He said by punting the issue to voters, the council members were taking a “lazy attitude.”
Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, said he was voting against a “regressive, repressive” tax. Councilman Mark Harder, R-7th District, said the zoo should have sought some other way to finance the project, saying taxpayers should be tapped only for emergencies.
But a majority of the council held firm, saying it was the voters’ call and not theirs.
“The zoo has made a credible case for allowing the voters to consider it,” said Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-3rd District.
“I don’t consider that the easy way out, it’s the right way out. It’s up to all of us to decide whether or not we want to fund these types of institutions, and that’s why I support putting it on the ballot.”