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ST. LOUIS • None of the city's big, publicly funded cultural institutions seems to be hurting for cash.

The St. Louis Art Museum has nearly reached its $145 million goal to pay for a massive expansion already under way. At the St. Louis Science Center, workers are adding 12,000 square feet of exhibit space. The always-expanding St. Louis Zoo is planning new homes for its sea lions.

Those efforts rely on private dollars, but they wouldn't be possible without a stream of property tax money authorized by voters 40 years ago this week.

During its history, the zoo-museum district - officially known as the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District - has raised about $1.3 billion, stabilized five once-struggling institutions and helped some of them develop international reputations.

The district can charge property owners in St. Louis and St. Louis County up to 28 cents per $100 assessed valuation. The money goes to the zoo, art museum, science center, Missouri Botanical Garden and Missouri History Museum.

The district, which featured the first multijurisdictional culture tax in the nation, remains a national model - but one that is showing its age.

The tax originally was a reaction to a shrinking tax base in St. Louis. Today, it could be facing the same problem.

In a region of about 2.7 million people, more live outside of the district than ever before. They might visit the city institutions - coming from St. Charles and Jefferson counties, the Metro East and other areas - but their tax dollars don't support them. The populations of St. Louis and St. Louis County, meanwhile, have dropped.

St. Louis County, which provides about 85 percent of district revenue, enjoyed a real-estate boom that fueled a big jump in district revenue just a few years ago. Revenue, pegged at more than $70 million last year, has been mostly flat since 2007.

If those trends hold steady, institutions may be forced to ramp up fundraising, increase tax rates or ask other counties to begin contributing. They could also be pressured to slash operational expenses - things like executive pay and staffing - or cut what they spend to improve visitors' experiences.

"It's going to become more difficult for 1.3 million people to pay the cost for what (the entire region) is using," said Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League. For the cultural institutions to enjoy the same level of public support, he said, "either the tax has to go up or the base has to grow."

Either proposition is "toxic," said Charles Valier, who as a state representative wrote the law allowing the tax district to be created. But eventually, he believes, the cultural institutions are going to have to persuade outlying counties to contribute.

"Seeing how population is growing, at some point in the future it's going to be necessary to expand the district," Valier said.

But not everyone agrees that an expansion is needed, let alone likely to happen.

COUNTY TO THE RESCUE

On April 6, 1971, St. Louis County voters agreed to join city residents in being taxed to help fund the municipal zoo and art museum. The new money would also go to a small, privately funded science museum. Those institutions faced a bleak future at the time because of the city's shrinking tax base.

The outlook changed when voters narrowly approved the zoo-museum district. North County and South County overwhelmingly rejected the issue. Backers credited the victory to high turnout in the county's central corridor, where voters feared a "no" vote would force the zoo and art museum to charge admission or possibly close.

In the 1980s, voters agreed to bump the tax rates for the zoo, art museum and science center, and allowed the botanical garden and history museum to join the district.

Voters weren't so generous in later years. Between 1989 and 1993, they rejected campaigns to add the St. Louis Symphony and amateur-sports facilities to the district and to increase taxes for the garden and science center.

Despite those election losses, many hold up the original 1971 vote as one of most forward-thinking decisions in St. Louis history.

The institutions have prospered more than peers in similar-size cities, in part because they can solicit donors to pay for expansions and improvements, using the tax money to cover many operating costs. The revenue stream also helps four of the institutions keep their doors open for free instead of charging admission. (The botanical garden charges an admission but gives discounts to district residents.)

The impact goes beyond dollars, said Brent Benjamin, the art museum's director. The tax district has shaped the way people view their cultural institutions, giving them a sense of ownership that doesn't exist in other cities.

"St. Louisans want great institutions," he said, "and they want them to be free."

The fact that people in outlying counties don't pay the tax but can still enjoy the institutions for free has sometimes caused friction. Two years ago, then-state Sen. Joan Bray proposed changing Missouri law to let all the institutions charge visitors who don't pay the property tax.

The bill went nowhere, in part because the zoo and art museum said they wouldn't charge, even if legislators said they could. Also, the institutions benefit from donations and bequests that are conditional on their remaining free.

PLANNING FOR LESS TAX MONEY

In much of the district's history, revenue has grown steadily, driven by fast-growing property assessments in St. Louis County. But because the county is largely built out, those boom years may be a thing of the past.

Figures from the 2010 census weren't encouraging, either. The combined population of the city and county dropped by a little more than 3 percent over a 10-year span. Yet the region as a whole grew by 4.2 percent. St. Charles County, for example, registered a 27 percent jump in population and is now bigger than St. Louis.

Facing the reality of slowing growth in property tax revenue, the five institutions are trying to prepare for the future.

The history museum will soon kick off a fundraising campaign, and its primary goal will be to bolster the museum's endowment to counteract slow growth in tax support. "In a way, it's a defensive move," said Robert Archibald, president of the museum.

Likewise, the zoo hopes to direct about $35 million raised in its ongoing fundraising campaign to the institution's endowment, which now stands at about $31.7 million.

Jeffrey Bonner, the zoo's president and chief executive, said the goal is to fund more operational expenses with interest from investments. The motivation, in part, is the assumption that revenue from the tax won't grow as fast as expenses.

"It's always going to be a shrinking piece of the pie, but it's also always going to be critical to our success," Bonner said.

Slow-growing subsidies could force more belt-tightening, as happened recently when a sharp drop in the institutions' investment income led some to impose pay freezes, voluntary retirements and layoffs.

Tough times can also draw attention to expenditures. Last year, St. Louis Alderman Joe Roddy called on the district's oversight board to do a better job bird-dogging spending at the cultural attractions, especially on executive pay.

Roddy was concerned that leaders at each of the institutions made between $366,885 and $387,110 in base salary, not counting deferred compensation and other perks. Supporters said high salaries were needed to attract top talent to run large, nationally renowned institutions.

EXPAND THE DISTRICT?

Every few years, civic leaders talk about expanding the district to include other counties. The conversation seldom gets very far.

Archibald thinks an expanded tax district would be a tough sell, especially in a down economy. Attitudes about tax support for cultural institutions have changed too, he said.

"Up until 1987, every (zoo-museum district) measure passed, and since then none have passed," he said. "Things seem different now."

Even if those losses can be forgotten, the ghosts from the 1971 election haunt discussions of expanding the district. If county voters living just 15 miles from Forest Park opposed paying taxes for free institutions, the thinking goes, what would motivate residents in places such as St. Peters, Edwardsville or Festus to agree to a new tax?

Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan said representatives of the zoo-museum district made a trip to the Metro East several years ago to ask leaders about their thoughts on expansion.

"It's not realistic," said Dunstan, who believes Metro East residents would rather pay admission than be taxed.

St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann agrees that a property tax proposal would be doomed. Voters might be persuaded to support another form of public funding for cultural institutions, but only if one or more establish a major presence in St. Charles County, he said.

Daron Dierkes thinks an expanded district could actually be a good solution - provided the institutions develop a presence in the outlying counties. Dierkes, a private tutor, has written extensively about district expansion on nextstl.com, a website on urban policy.

Dierkes grew up in Imperial and now lives just blocks from the botanical garden. He said he was inspired by the Butterfly House in Chesterfield and the Shaw Nature Reserve in Franklin County, two satellite operations run by the garden.

Dierkes imagines botanists from the garden restoring wetlands at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, or the science center developing a natural history museum near Jefferson County's Mastodon State Historic Site.

Valier, the former legislator who wrote the bill to help create the tax district, said there wouldn't be a serious push to expand tax funding unless all five institutions are on board - especially the zoo, which draws the largest number of visitors.

Bonner, though, says he plans to spend the next five years focusing on the zoo's fundraising campaign, not district expansion.

"If there's a push to do it," he said, "it's going to have to come from some other place."

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