At least one Oklahoma City councilman thinks it's time to study whether sales tax money currently routed to the zoo should instead go to public safety or street improvements.
Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid brought up the zoo's funding at a council meeting in June during a discussion of what to do with a projected surplus of $1.5 million in the new fiscal year, which began Sunday. The council, which still has not made a decision, debated using the money to hire new police officers, fix more streets or add Sunday bus service, among other options.
Shadid noted the city was trying to decide what core service should get the surplus, but that the eighth-cent sales tax dedicated to the zoo for the last two-plus decades was rendered untouchable, like all dedicated funding sources, without a change to city code. The sales tax is expected to bring the zoo about $12.4 million this year.
“In my mind over the next year, it's time to look at the one-eighth sales tax (for) the zoo,” Shadid said. “Then we could debate how much this year of excess funds we want to give to the zoo instead of ... our core business, which is public safety.”
Shadid did not respond to multiple requests last week to elaborate on his comments.
Public-private funding mix
More than half of the Oklahoma City Zoo's operating budget comes from city tax revenue. That's a larger portion than some zoos in the region and less than others.
Most of the rest of the budget comes from proceeds from users, which is primarily money from tickets, concessions, parking and souvenirs, along with money from events held at the zoo.
The nonprofit Oklahoma Zoological Society helps secure private funding, which supplements the zoo's budget. The society, also known as Zoo Friends, contributes its membership fees to the zoo each year and assists with raising money for capital projects and other efforts.
The membership fees brought in $1.1 million last year, said Dana McCrory, the society's executive director. Right now, the society also is raising half of the $9 million needed for a new veterinary hospital at the zoo.
Is private funding enough?
Shadid contends it's worth studying whether the zoo can make do without so much help from the city.
“That's the one entity that could consistently, and does, get private donations,” Shadid said. “You're not going to get private donations for transit. You're not going to get private donations for police officers.”
But the public money provided to the zoo over the last two decades has been transformative, said Dwight Scott, the zoo's director. Animals used to rest on concrete floors, visible to patrons through bars and cages, but the zoo has turned into a centerpiece of the city's Adventure District.
“It really has allowed the zoo to grow tremendously, and I don't just mean in terms of new exhibits,” Scott said.
“The sales tax has allowed us to exhibit animals in a much more naturalistic manner. Exhibits are larger and more naturalistic. Animals are on grass.”
McCrory said any abrupt and major funding shift would be disastrous for the zoo. She pointed out the campaign to raise $4.5 million in private donations for the veterinary hospital alone will take three years.
“We are so blessed that the city of Oklahoma City chose to allocate that one-eighth-cent sales tax for our zoo, and it has truly created that zoo that you know and we love,” McCrory said. “We (Zoo Friends) could in no way fund the zoo if that sales tax stopped tomorrow. Our fundraising would not be able to catch up with that overnight.”