JEFFERSON CITY — The Senate Committee on Progress and Development today heard legislation filed by Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, to help sustain the future of the Saint Louis Zoo. Senate Bill 49 authorizes St. Louis City and the counties of St. Louis, Jefferson, St. Charles and Franklin to propose to voters a sales tax of one-eighth cent or less that would go to support critical infrastructure, as well as animal conservation needs for the nationally renowned zoo.
“I introduced Senate Bill 49 to start a discussion about how St. Louis, as a region, can best address the long-term infrastructure and deferred maintenance issues at the Saint Louis Zoo, which was recently voted America’s top free attraction in a nationwide poll,” said Senate Minority Leader Walsh. “The language I presented in committee today is the result of ongoing conversations between the zoo, regional business leaders and elected officials at the state and local levels.”
The Saint Louis Zoo was originally funded by a property tax in St. Louis City. As a result of westward expansion, that property tax was extended to St. Louis County in the 1970s and was the primary source of revenue for the zoo. The current property tax in St. Louis City and St. Louis County generates one-third of the revenue, with another one-third coming from operating revenue (i.e., concessions sales, parking fees, etc.) and the final one-third through philanthropy.
“Today, there are just as many residents coming from St. Charles County to visit the zoo as there are coming from St. Louis City,” Walsh said. “My legislation would allow area residents to invest a tiny amount to keep the Saint Louis Zoo free of admission charges and to help support a cultural gem that annually adds more than $230 million and 2,100 jobs to the region’s economy.
“In addition to approving the ballot initiative, SB 49 creates a regional governance framework to manage any revenue generated from the sales tax to ensure each county has a seat at the table in determining how the funds are spent,” added Walsh. “This is probably the biggest provision of the legislation to stem from the conversations we’ve had with the St. Charles County executive to alleviate concerns with the language we discussed last year. Finally, my bill addresses the issue we had last year pertaining to Grant’s Farm by clarifying that the funds cannot be used for its purchase — permanently taking it off the table.”
The sales tax would not replace the property tax now collected from St. Louis city and county residents and overseen by the Zoo Museum District Commission, established in 1972.
“The Saint Louis Zoo’s existing tax support has remained flat while expenses have risen by 35 percent in recent years. The zoo also faces millions of dollars in needed repairs to its 100-year-old campus. While it may be possible to raise money for new exhibits, it becomes much harder when you’re talking about maintenance of the plumbing system or infrastructure projects,” said Walsh. “I grew up going to the zoo because it was free, and I am confident many of my constituents do the same. Whether future generations have a world-class zoo in coming years will depend on the decisions we make now.”