After fierce fight, Oakland Zoo parcel tax measure fails

Alyson Yarus, senior associate at Noll & Tam Architects and Planners, discusses the Oakland Zoo's California Trail project. Opponents to Measure A1 claim that funds from the parcel tax would have gone toward the expansion project.

Alyson Yarus, senior associate at Noll & Tam Architects and Planners, discusses the Oakland Zoo's California Trail project. Opponents to Measure A1 claim that funds from the parcel tax would have gone toward the expansion project.

Alameda County’s Measure A1, which would have created a parcel tax to fund animal care and educational programs at the Oakland Zoo, set off a stir of claims and counterclaims between zoo officials and local and state environmental groups. Roughly 62 percent of the county’s voters finally voted in favor of the measure—but because it was a tax, that fell short of the two-thirds majority of votes needed for approval.

The arguments over A1 were fierce. Opponents said the zoo already receives millions of dollars in revenue from public funding, making the zoo’s claims of needing additional money from the parcel tax seem unwarranted. They also accused the zoo of purposely writing loopholes into the measure that would have allowed zoo officials to use the parcel tax money for construction, including a controversial expansion into the city’s Knowland Park.

“In the end, what we were most appreciative of was that 63 percent of the voters supported us, so for that, it was huge,” said Joel Parrott, President and CEO of the Oakland Zoo, in a telephone interview this week. “It’s a very high bar to have two thirds of the vote. In any other election, if President Obama had got 63 percent of the vote, they would have called it a landslide. Sixty-three percent wasn’t good enough for this measure, but it was good enough to make a statement.”

Parrott and other supporters of A1 insisted that the parcel tax would have directed all its revenue to food, fresh water, and heating and cooling systems for animals at the Oakland Zoo in addition to facilitating the repair of animal shelters and sewage and draining systems there. The money would have also helped to maintain the zoo’s veterinary hospital and to continue educational programs and school field trips for children.

The tax would have generated over $112 million throughout a 25-year period. Single-family residencies would have paid $12 per parcel per year, and nonresidential properties would have paid $72 per parcel per year. Low-income property owners and any anyone over the age of 67 would have been exempt from paying the tax.

The No On Measure A1 campaign argued that Measure A1 would have allowed zoo officials to spend the money on a planned 34,000 square foot visitor center, restaurant and gift shop. Knowland Park, which surrounds the zoo and is the planned site for the expansion, is home to native plants and wildlife, like the threatened Alameda whipsnake. Ever since the zoo’s expansion plans were first approved by the Oakland City Council in June 2011, the zoo has received backlash from local and state environmental groups hoping to keep the remainder of the park free from development.

Mack Casterman, a conservation analyst for the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, said in a telephone interview this week that zoo supporters have tried to portray arguments from groups like Friends of Knowland Park and California Native Plant Society as an issue between the zoo and a small group of property owners surrounding Knowland Park, but that this is not the case.

“The property owner argument is one the zoo has brought up countless times throughout their process, but it doesn’t really hold much water,” Casterman said. “The concern has always been on focusing on protecting the park for the entire community.”

Elizabeth Baker, vice president of the Resource Renewal Institute, an environmental advocacy organization, said she was heartened by the measure’s defeat. “Anytime an open space, especially a rare urban wildland park with lots of plants and animals, is saved from development, it’s a victory for parks anywhere,” Baker said. “Even in smaller neighborhoods and cities, it’s just as important as a national park. You can always expect a large powerful entity to win, but then where’s a valuable issue at stake, you can often be surprised that the little guy will come through.”

Supporters of A1 have maintained under that the Measure A1 Expenditure Plan, all of the money collected during the tax would have been required by law to go toward animal care, educational programs for children and maintaining low admission prices for the Zoo—not large-scale expansion projects. Additionally, if passed, the measure would have required annual financial audits, oversight by an Independent Citizens Oversight Committee and an Expenditure Plan to ensure that funds would have been properly allocated. In addition, the Oversight Committee would have been required to include representation from conservation, environmental and animal rights groups, the League of Women Voters, taxpayer and senior citizen advocates and the PTA, the Yes on A1 website states.

An article published in October by the East Bay Express cited campaign finance and tax records to report that Oakland Zoo officials and the East Bay Zoological Society–the nonprofit organization in contract with the City of Oakland to operate the zoo—had violated both local and state election laws. Violations included using Zoo property for political purposes, a breach of a contract signed with the City of Oakland in 2004 that prohibits political fundraising and campaigning on the property. The article also states that the zoo may have financed part of its pro-A1 campaign with both taxpayer money and its general fund, according to tax records.

Animal care and educational programming will all be affected by A1’s defeat, including the discontinuation of some educational programs, but the zoo’s affordability will be the most impacted, Parrott said. Currently, general admission for adults ages 15-64 is $13.75, about $1.25 cheaper than the San Francisco Zoo, which charges $15 for visitors between 15 and 65. Within the next six months, visitors should expect to see ticket prices go up, although zoo officials are unsure at this point by how much.

“There are two types of zoos in this country, most of them get heavy public support and there are a few who don’t,” Parrott said. “The ones with public support have a very low-price admission.” Some facilities like the Monterey Bay Aquarium charge nearly $35 for the price of adult admission, while others, like the Saint Louis Zoo—a facility that received nearly $20 million in funds last year–is free for visitors, he said. “We’re moving now into the little public support group and we’ll basically have to meet our expenses through fees. We just really would like to say thank you to the 63 percent who voted for [Measure A-1] and had faith in Oakland Zoo.”

Regarding plans for potential increases in ticket prices, Casterman said it just doesn’t make sense that the zoo would continue plans to expand, yet claim to be in need of additional revenue.

“The Oakland Zoo is embarking on a $72 million expansion, obviously there is a priority issue with zoo management,” he said. “If they do end up wanting to raise prices to enter the zoo, they can, but it doesn’t seem like it makes the most sense.”

8 Comments

  1. Patsy

    As both an avid native plant gardener and an animal lover, I would have said I have respect for both groups. Not anymore. I find the anti-1A group to be downright mean-spirited. No more native plant sales for me!

    • Jim Cook

      Don’t be silly. The zoo has decided that it wants to expensively expand in an area that includes a very unique native plant habitat & to then on the scraped site to celebrate California natural history. Then it cries poverty and claims to not have the funds to properly care for its animals. The zoo has made its choice clear: expansion comes first, pleading poverty second. And you fault native plant lovers for what? Lack of respect for an arrogant institution? The CNPS has offered to work with the zoo for a long time on this proposal with no response from the zoo..

    • Peter Rauch

      Well Patsy, if you are an animal lover, why on Earth would you want to let the Zoo destroy the native animals’ habitat in Knowland Park ?

      The No on A1 folks fought your battle to save not only the native plants but also the animals you love.

      You owe them a big Thank You !

      They “mean” well and you did well by them.

      Peter

    • Jennifer Smith

      Your comment doesn’t make logical sense. If you care about native plants and animals, you understand why it is so critical to keep open spaces open. We have paved so much of the bay, that these few remaining natural habitats are precious.

      Caging animals for our entertainment isn’t respectful of wildlife. Destroying habitat for wild animals to cage more of them isn’t healthy, and it isn’t what this planet needs.

  2. Alexa

    Everyone should come visit Knowland park. It is free, beautiful and full of life. I believe our priority should be to to protect what open space and parklands we have left. I voted No on measure A1 because I read the full text of the measure and saw that is said in part H. ” Services and Projects” that they could use our tax dollars for expanding and constructing new capital facilities. I was disheartened by the zoo saying that they legally couldn’t use A1 funds towards their expansion. We all know if it’s written in the measure than it legally can happen. I am very pleased that A1 didn’t pass and hope that more people will check out Knowland park.

  3. Sequoyah Highlands

    It’s incorrect to portray the No on A1 campaigners as “mean-spirited”. That campaign was run with as much attention to truth and fact and as much effort to avoid personalities as was humanly possible. There is nothing to be gained by ad hominem attacks, especially when the facts are so clear and speak so loudly. Anyone who cared to read the measure and the analysis, and to read and listen to the public comments by the measure supporters, would find the latter full of half-truths and name-calling. The measure failed for a good reason, namely that a substantial number of Alameda County voters saw through the obfuscation and circumlocution and voted for the right.

  4. I guess I’m one of those mean spirited property owners up in the hills who wanted to keep that space all to myself. Except that I’ve lived in the Oakland flatlands for almost 45 years. I love that wide open space park up there and I take my dogs and my grandchildren up there regularly. As for the mean spirits — I met a lot of the “No on A1″ people and I have to say – they are some of the friendliest people I’ve met in recent years. It’s a simple matter: I don’t want that open space built up by a bunch of corporate executives (which is what the members of the zoo Board of Directors are) into a theme park. I think it’s important for kids to get a chance to explore in nature, and there’s precious little enough of it as there is. Just because it isn’t bringing in money doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.

  5. This article is balanced and well researched. I have just two comments to help clarify what’s been written. The first is that the statement in the article that “Low income property owners and anyone over the age of 67 would have been exempt from the tax” is incorrect. Unfortunately, the County Counsel’s Impartial Analysis of Measure A1 that appeared in the Voter Pamphlet incorrectly reported on what the measure actually said and that may have affected the way that many low-income people voted. The Alameda County Registrar of Voters has printed a correction online which did not appear in the Voter Pamphlet. What the measure actually says is that only seniors over 67 who qualify as low-income and register with the Zoo can receive the exemption. Low-income people under the age of 67 cannot qualify for an exemption. It’s impossible to know how many low-income people would have voted for Measure A1 thinking erroneously that they would be exempt from the parcel tax. Nonetheless, over 200,300 people voted against Measure A1.

    Second, the Zoo’s CEO refers to the St. Louis Zoo’s policy of free admission as an example of a zoo that is receiving adequate public funding to support free admission in contrast to the Oakland Zoo.. The fact is that while admission to the St. Louis Zoo is free, it costs money to get into many of its exhibits including the Children’s Zoo. The St. Louis Zoo has simply shifted the way it makes it attendance money from the gate admission to the exhibits. The fact that admission to the Oakland Zoo is expensive reflects on a universal problem of zoos: it’s expensive to maintain live animal exhibits. Whether the public pays to support a zoo or attendees and members pay, the fact remains that keeping captive animals is extremely expensive. And, if the zoo builds its expansion, it’s going to be even more expensive.

    Currently, it costs nothing to support the wild animals that live in Knowland Park, and it costs nothing to visit the park. These two facts should be factored into any cost-benefit analysis.

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