Zoo officials gauge support for renewal of millage tax

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

The Detroit Zoo’s first-ever regional millage doesn’t expire until 2017, but zoo leaders already are gauging public support for a 10-year renewal they say is critical to maintaining operations.

Zoo officials say recent polls show public support remains strong for the nonprofit institution, which in 2008 asked voters in the three counties to approve a .1-mil tax for 10 years to support zoo operations. The millage brings in $11 million from taxpayers in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne.

Zoo officials declined to release results from the polling that was done in March and June, but a zoo spokesperson said it was intended to determine whether a millage renewal next year looks promising.

The annual millage accounts for less than 25 percent of the $46.4 million revenue stream the zoo collects to maintain its 125-acre park, care for and house more than 2,500 animals and employ more than 220 people.

The zoo brings in $7.8 million a year in admissions, parking and rentals and $4.1 million in membership dues. It also gets $6.5 million in contributions, annual gifts and donated services and materials.

“Like a park millage, it was thought we'd need to renew on an ongoing basis (every decade, plus or minus),” said Patricia Mills Janeway, zoo spokeswoman. “We will likely share the (poll) results after we've had a chance to digest with our board (late October). First glance shows public support remains strong for the Zoo, essentially the same as 2008.”

The zoo is dependent on the millage and will continue to need the support, officials said. Janeway said the DZS endowment, about $15.1 million in 2014, is not enough to fund operations and cannot replace millage revenue.

In 2008, voters in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties overwhelmingly approved a zoo tax that expires in 2017, with the last tax collection occurring in 2018.

By comparison, regional voters approved a .2-mil tax to support operations at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2012.

Millage revenues from the zoo tax plummeted from 2008 through 2013 as property values sank and taxes collections shrunk across Metro Detroit. Zoo officials say millage revenue declined 22 percent from 2008 to 2013, from $14.8 million to $11.1 million.

Revenue from the millage is expected to increase for tax years 2014 and 2015, data from the zoo shows, to $11.34 million for 2014 and $11.4 million in 2015, according to zoo officials.

Janeway said the millage is expected to remain flat for its three remaining years, but officials in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties are projecting slightly larger collections for 2016, 2017 and 2018 as property values rise again.

While Proposal-A caps how much the county can assess every year in property taxes, Dave Hieber, Oakland County’s equalization director, said projections show the millage growing slightly in Oakland from $4.97 million in 2014 to $5.29 million in 2016 to $5.67 million in 2018.

Oakland County provides the largest share of the tax among the three counties, about 16 percent of the zoo’s annual budget, while Wayne County provides 13 percent and Macomb County 8 percent, according to zoo data from 2013.

Macomb County officials said the county is expected to collect $2.57 million 2016 and $2.7 million in 2018. Wayne County expects to collect $3.63 million in 2016 and $3.68 million in 2018.

The Detroit Zoological Society took over operations from the city of Detroit in 2006. The city retains ownership of all animals, buildings and grounds as well as artifacts and exhibits. The zoo received $570,000 from the city during fiscal year 2014, for reimbursement of security and insurance costs.

Gail Warden, chair emeritus of the Detroit Zoological Society, said the zoo depends on the millage and donations to operate and will continue to need taxpayer support in the future.

“If the zoo continues to grow and develop new venues like we have the last 10 years, we will depend on major donations and the millage,” he said.

A capital request to pay for larger projects such as additional parking decks is also being considered, Warden said, but would be separate from renewal.

The zoo hosts more than 1.3 million visitors annually, including Joan Tinsey and Tami Gardner, who paid a visit last month with their grandchildren.

Both women said the zoo is a place they frequent a few times a year to enjoy the outdoors, time with family and the exhibits. And both said they would support a request to renew the millage.

“I would support renewal as long as they aren’t upping it, which they do all the time, I would be for it,” Gardner of White Lake Township.

Warren resident Joyce Smith said she voted for the 2008 millage and would approve a renewal if asked next year.

“We come to the zoo once a week. We are members. We come basically to walk. It’s a nice environment,” she said.