Record high gas prices and a struggling economy could spell trouble for the Tracy Aviary and Hogle Zoo.
Both facilities are banking on the public to vote in favor of paying higher property taxes to fund upgrades. The zoo wants $65 million to add new exhibits, while the aviary needs $19.3 million to make major upgrades and gain back its accreditation.
But in hard economic times, the public is typically leery of any tax increase, said Kelly Patterson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University.
"If people feel they are struggling in some way, tax increases, even minimal tax increases, usually means a 'no' vote," Patterson said.
The County Council is scheduled to vote July 15 whether the two bond questions should be on the November ballot.
Last year, the council rejected the same request from the zoo on a party-line vote. It looks as if things will be different this year, as Republican Marv Hendrickson said he'll change his vote to put both the zoo and aviary bond requests on the ballot.
But "not if I have anything to do with it," said Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association. "We will continue to talk with (Hendrickson) to change that."
The taxpayers' association will fight against both bond proposals, Van Tassell said.
It's about priorities, Van Tassell said.
"The value or importance of those bonds pale in comparison to responsibilities taxpayers are going to be burdened with in taking care of much higher priorities," like the Mountain View Corridor, rebuilding I-15 and funding other transportation needs.
"You can only tax people so far before people get fed up and say, 'No more,"' Van Tassell said. "They need to be looking at the long-term needs as a County Council to decide what are the highest priorities.
"Unfortunately, neither the aviary nor the zoo come anywhere near in terms of importance in the issues the taxpayers will face the next few years."
Republican council member Jeff Allen voted against the zoo's bond request last year and said he will likely vote the same way again this year.
It's not that the zoo doesn't have a good project on its hands, he said.
"With the dropping economy, we have to carefully watch our priorities," Allen said. "But it would be great."
If the zoo bond makes the ballot, and voters approve it, property taxes will jump $10 a year on a home valued at $235,000 for the next 15 years.
Zoo officials want to use the money to build out the zoo's master plan, with a new arctic edge exhibit, complete with polar bears, and a parking structure tops on the priority list.
Zoo director Craig Dinsmores believes the tight economy can work in their favor, as Utahns will cut back on travel and instead take "staycations."
"In a weak economy, families need additional opportunity to visit close-to-home attractions that are reasonably priced," Dinsmore said.
No matter how bad the economy is, Elizabeth Farrell said a relatively minor tax increase is worth it for a better zoo experience.
"If it was 10 bucks a year, for sure I would," the East Millcreek resident said. "The kids love it. It's a great place."
The aviary needs $19.4 million just to meet the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' accreditation standards.
If approved, the aviary bond would raise property taxes $2.51 a year for 15 years on a $235,000 home.
Really, the aviary could use a lot more money for upgrades, officials say, but "we've pared it down to the minimum we need to get" accreditation back, said Tim Brown, the aviary's executive director. The facility lost its accreditation in 2006, resulting in a loss of staff, funding and the ability to exchange birds with other aviaries and zoos.
"This funding is absolutely vital to us in this stage of our evolution," said Davis Mullholand, chairman of the aviary's board of directors. "We absolutely must get our AZA accreditation back."
Additional walk-through exhibits, an entryway plaza and indoor space would be built in the core of the park if the funding is approved.
Salt Lake City voters approved a $1.1 bond in 2003 to fund the "Birds of Argentina" exhibit at the aviary. Now Salt Lake City leaders are asking their county counterparts to do their part to help the dilapidated aviary.
"If we don't get this bond, we'll have to go back to the drawing board" and start begging private donors to step in, Salt Lake City Council member Erik Jergensen said. "There are jewels in our city, and jewels in our region, and in my mind this is one of them."
Republican County Council member David Wilde said he's leaning in favor of bailing out the aviary and placing the $19.3 bond proposition on the ballot. However, he's not convinced that the zoo should get $65 million in these tough economic times.The zoo "is like remodeling the mansion, compared to the aviary," Wilde said. "That's in real bad shape."
E-mail: [email protected]