Detroit Zoo asks voters to renew 10-year Metro millage

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — Election yard signs these days popping out of Metro Detroit yards have creatures on them but not the elephants and donkeys traditionally associated with politics.

More than 12,000 “Renew the Zoo” signs with pictures of penguins, tigers and frogs were distributed this past week in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties urging voters to support a 10-year renewal of a 0.1 mill property tax Aug. 2 for Detroit Zoo operations.

The renewal will not increase property taxes as an owner of a home worth $200,000 will continue to pay $10 a year. In 2008, 74.9 percent of Oakland County voters approved millage, 73.2 percent voted yes in Wayne County and 66.5 percent in Macomb County.

Patricia Mills Janeway, a Detroit Zoo spokeswoman, said the current millage expires at the end of 2017. The renewal would start in 2018.

“It is common practice and good planning to seek voter approval of a renewal prior to the expiration of a current millage,” she said. “An early millage renewal will give us ample time to prepare next year’s budget.”

Zoo officials also felt a vote in August would not get lost in the hoopla for the national presidential election.

Janeway said while zoo officials are optimistic for renewal, if it fails in any of the counties, it would be put back on the November ballot.

John Scott, R-Waterford Township, one of three members of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners to oppose putting the renewal on the ballot, said he felt the approval vote was premature.

“I only voted no because I felt they were coming to us too early,” said Scott, a longtime commissioner who is running for Waterford Township supervisor. “I thought it more appropriate to wait for the current millage to expire and renew it at that time.”

Janeway said about one-third of the zoo’s $35 million annual costs are covered by the millage, overwhelmingly supported for the first time by tricounty voters in 2008.

The 0.1 mill generates about $5 million from Oakland County, $4 million from Macomb and $2.4 million from Wayne. Residents from the three counties receive special benefits, including a $10 discount on memberships.

One-third of the zoo’s annual expenses come from admission and concession revenues and about one-third from memberships, donations and grants.

The zoo millage is one of two regional funding votes expected to be decided this year.

In November, voters in the three Metro Detroit counties will be asked to approve a 20-year 1.2 property tax millage for the new Regional Transit Authority. The plan, along with state and federal matching funds, is expected to raise $4.6 billion.

In 2012, voters in the three counties approved a Detroit Institute of Arts tax that provides the DIA with $23 million annually, about 70 percent of its operating costs. That 10-year tax will expire in 2022.

The zoo millage is money well spent, Janeway said.

“The zoo is a recognized leader in sustainability, education, wildlife conservation and animal welfare and for providing sanctuary for endangered animals in need of rescue,” Janeway said. “Its economic impact to our region is more than $100 million each year.”

Grace Shore, a member of the Macomb County Zoological Authority, said voters should support the millage because the zoo is a “major regional asset.”

“It’s a jewel here in southeast Michigan,” Shore said. “And we need to protect it, preserve it and build on it.”

Wayne County Commission vice chair Alisha Bell, D-Detroit, agreed.

“This is a renewal and not an increase and is crucial in maintaining one of our prized jewels,” said Bell, who is also chairwoman of the Wayne County Zoological Authority. “The vast majority of residents in this state, as well as people from surrounding states, have visited the Detroit Zoo at one time or another and have been amazed at witnessing nature’s beauty right in front of them.”

Janeway said a 2015 survey of voters reveals people “feel passionate about the Detroit Zoo and its importance to the community in terms of value, uniqueness, childhood development and a sanctuary in which people can experience nature ... they consider the zoo one of the premier attractions in the Detroit Metro area and they recognize the impact it has on children and families.”

About 1.5 million people visit the 125-acre zoo each year and the number is expected to grow with the recent opening of the $30 million Polk Penguin Conservation Center, believed the largest of its kind in the world.

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Staff Writers Nicquel Terry and Charles E. Ramirez contributed.