Brookfield backs off 'zoo tax'

Village, zoo leaders agree to keep talking

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By BOB UPHUES

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Brookfield
officials on Monday night headed off a potentially explosive confrontation with scores of Chicago Zoological Society supporters, who turned out to protest a proposed tax on amusements which would have hit Brookfield Zoo particularly hard.


More than 125 people, many of them zoo employees clad in forest green golf shirts and zoo volunteers wearing their kelly green uniform shirts, responded to an e-mail blast last week by Stuart Strahl, the zoo's CEO, calling on members and supporters to speak out against a proposed tax that would have added charges to admission, parking, rentals and purchases. The village estimated, conservatively, that such a tax could bring in about $500,000 to village coffers.


But the subject was pulled off the table Monday night by Village President Michael Garvey, who announced a last-minute meeting between village and zoo officials had resulted in "productive discussions" and that further meetings would be forthcoming.


The meeting, hastily arranged on Monday afternoon, included Garvey, Village Manager Riccardo Ginex, Assistant Manager Keith Sbiral and Village Attorney Richard Ramello. It also included zoo officials, including Ken Kaduk, senior vice president for finance and administration; Matt Mayer, vice president of government affairs; Randy Vickery, secretary of the Chicago Zoological Society's board of trustees; and Dennis White, chief attorney for the Cook County Forest Preserve District.


"We stated both of our positions," Kaduk said. "It's always good to have dialog to come to common ground. We agreed to continue to meet."


Municipalities can impose a so-called "amusement tax" - up to 3 percent of gross revenues - under
Illinois law. However, Brookfield's proposed law also states that such a tax would not extend to activities that are "instructional in nature and constitute lessons or classes."


The zoo could have challenged such a tax on its operations on those grounds.


Asked if the zoo would have filed a legal challenge to the imposition of such a tax, Kaduk declined comment. Garvey said also declined to elaborate other than to note that the forest preserve district's attorney was present.


"They did have their attorney present and he reviewed the ordinance," Garvey said.


Two residents who spoke at the meeting remarked that the zoo had successfully intimidated the village into backing away from the proposed tax.


But Garvey denied that charge.


"I didn't hear the board say that," Garvey said. "They were very well-behaved and impassioned about the topic. I don't think the board was intimidated in any way, and I don't think the zoo was intending to intimidate in any way."


While Monday's protest didn't go off as expected, the zoo appears to have achieved its goal of slowing down the implementation of the tax, which Strahl, in his e-mail to members last week, said "would likely cause a decline in attendance and membership levels, critical income sources needed to operate Brookfield Zoo, maintain our renowned animal welfare, conservation and educational programs."


Strahl wrote that such a tax could have a dramatic impact on attendance at what is one of the state's top tourist attractions, drawing some two million visitors annually, bringing in $150 million and employing 2,000 people.


"A decline in attendance would also affect our role as a valuable economic engine for our region," Strahl wrote.


Garvey said that zoo officials misunderstood the purpose of Monday night's meeting, thinking that the village board would be voting on the matter. That, he said, likely led to Strahl's e-mail and the impressive response.


However, the item was part of the committee of the whole agenda, where no board action is taken. The amusement tax was one of several revenue enhancements the board was to have considered at Monday's meeting. Others, including a restaurant tax, hotel/motel tax, a local water tax, and increases to garbage fees and business licenses are also being considered.


On Monday night, the board reached a consensus to raise garbage fees to make that service cost-neutral and implement the hotel/motel tax, which can only be used to fund activities related to tourism. Those increases could receive formal approval by the board on July 12.


The board did not reach a consensus on the restaurant tax or on whether to seek a property tax referendum to fund special recreation or general village operations.


Apart from a general property tax increase, however, the most profitable tax to the village would have been the amusement tax, which would have taken advantage of 
Brookfield's largest employer.


Village officials have for decades talked about somehow exploiting the zoo's position as a tourist magnet, mostly to no avail. Garvey said the amusement tax was one way to try to tie taxing the zoo to expenses the village incurs because of the zoo's presence.


"We're not just looking at the zoo as a cash cow," Garvey said, "but to tie it with expenses we have."


One service the village does provide the zoo is water delivery, a topic of discussion that was also tabled Monday night. In addition to the direct cost of water,
Brookfield tacks on an annual fee to deliver that water. Since 2004, that fee has been $105,000. The village was to have entered into a contract with the zoo that would have kept that fee at $105,000 for another year.

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