November 16, 2022

Parks, Zoos, and Museums Receive Millions

Tax Support for Nature, Wildlife, and Science

Topeka Zoo map

By: Gabe Buckley

As the dust settles on this year’s election, media headlines focus on the craziest candidates, closest races, and national issues. However, Canopy Strategic Partners (and many of our publicly supported clients) were also focused on a few down-ballot, hyper-local votes concerning new or continued public funding of zoos, aquariums, gardens, and public greenspaces. We only sampled a few races, but hundreds of millions of potential tax dollars were on the ballot that would directly benefit mission-driven organizations connecting people to nature and wildlife!

Many of these ballot items did not make national news, or even local news in some cases. For the many cultural attractions and non-profit organizations that receive funding from these sources, these ballot items were likely more directly important than the congressional or gubernatorial races.

We all know that the country is clearly politically divided, but surprisingly, voters seem to agree on the importance of supporting parks, natural spaces, and cultural attractions like zoos, aquariums, and museums. In this post, we follow several organizations through this year’s election (including the tax-funding type and election results), and finally, we give some insights into how Canopy can help you strategize about your public funding options and go over some public funding basics. Let’s take a look!

2022 Election – Select Public Funding Results:

  • Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center, Kansas Children’s Discovery Center, Gage Park
    • Structure: Zoo – Public/Private Partnership between Topeka and Friends of the Topeka Zoo; Discovery Center – Private Non-Profit; Gage Park – managed by Shawnee County Parks
    • Ballot Item: Countywide Question on a 0.2% Sales tax
      • Yes: 62%
      • No: 38%
    • Outcome: 58% of the total sales tax revenue generated goes to Topeka Zoo. Other revenues go to renewing Gage Park (22%), the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center (15%), and an Improvement Authority (5%).
The above map shows Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center (elephant), the current Congressional Districts (ending when the current election’s candidates are sworn in), a 90-minute drivetime radial from Topeka Zoo (white outline), and Shawnee County (purple outline; the public portion of the zoo’s partnership).

You’ll notice in the map above that Shawnee County sits in a Republican-controlled congressional district. While two Democrat-controlled congressional districts do exist within 90-minutes, only Shawnee County residents could vote on this issue. The issue passed by a margin of about 12%, suggesting that the Topeka Zoo (and the other organizations supported) has strong community support. It’s also important to note the complex structure of the ballot measure – 4 different organizations, both non-profit and government, benefit directly from the measure and combine forces within the established Improvement Authority to collectively decide how to spend 5% of the funds.

We reached to Zoo Director Brendan Wiley to get some insights to Topeka Zoo’s successes. Here’s what he had to say (edited):

After we shifted our governance to a new public private partnership in 2021, we were unsure of the timing to pursue a new sales tax initiative.  Just to see, we conducted polling.  The polling came back strongly in favor and the voting that followed almost matched the polling results identically. Overnight, our budget increased 44%.

As industry leaders, we know our communities.  When you know you have your community’s support, your community will support your big things.”

  • Forest Preserve of Cook County (FPCC)
    • Structure: FPCC owns 70,000 acres of green space in Chicago, including the land Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanic Garden sit on. FPCC provides significant financial support to both institutions
    • Ballot Item: Forest Preserve District, Increase Limiting Rate for property tax
      • Yes: 63%
      • No: 37%
    • Outcome: Approximately $40M/year in additional property tax revenues will be generated. FPCC will distribute funds across their holdings, with funds going to capital and operating costs.
In the map above, we can see Chicago Botanic Garden, Brookfield Zoo, and Lincoln Park Zoo – all which sit within Cook County (purple outline). The white outlines show 90-minute drivetimes from each organization, with color-coded congressional districts shown.

Here, we see the opposite of Topeka – most of the congressional districts within 90-minutes of these organizations were controlled by a Democrat in the 117th Congress. With results almost identical to Topeka, these maps really go to show that national politics do not necessarily dictate support for local government policies and taxes. Even though Cook County has far more people (and districts) than Shawnee County, we see almost identical levels of support for measures specifically aimed at supporting zoos, gardens, and green spaces.

  • Oakland Zoo
    • Structure: Public/Private Partnership
    • Ballot Item: $68 parcel tax on single-family parcels and other properties
      • Yes: 62%
      • No: 38%
    • Outcome: Oakland Zoo is expected to generate $12 million a year in additional funding
  • Cleveland Metroparks
    • Structure: Cleveland Metroparks (“CM”) operates as a separate political subdivision of the State of Ohio, governed by a board of citizens appointed by the Cuyahoga County Probate Court judge. CM operates manages over 24,350 acers of land in 18 reservations throughout the Cleveland area in addition to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
    • Ballot Item: 2.7-mill Replacement Tax Levy (updates a previously passed property tax)
      • Yes: 77%
      • No: 23%
    • Outcome: With the landslide approval, Cleveland Metroparks estimates $78 million in property tax revenue, accounting for more than 60% of total yearly revenues expected in 2023.
  • Durham Museum of Life and Science
    • Structure:  Public/Private Partnership
    • Ballot Item: Durham County Museum Bond Measure
      • Yes: 79%
      • No: 21%
    • Outcome: The Museum of Life and Science will receive a (nearly) $14 million bond from Durham County

Want to explore public funding options for your organization?

Zoos, aquariums, gardens, and public green spaces have consistently received broad public support. However, the exact method of extracting that public support differs by region, political environment, government partnerships, and many other considerations.

The map below shows AZA Organizations (Zoos and Aquariums) over Congressional Districts (labeled with Total Population 2022 if you zoom in) from the 117th Congress*. Find your organization, use the layers to look at drivetime radials, zoom in to see population totals of each congressional district, and see which of your neighbors might benefit from joining together in a larger-scale tax initiative. Sorry, garden friends – we haven’t added a full list of gardens. You can, however, search for your location using the tools on the bottom right of the map.

*Note: The elections held on November 8, 2022, will determine the 118th Congress. Some districts changed, and some seats flipped parties. We can publish the 118th Congressional Map and population totals as they become available to us – just send us a request!

Or, copy and paste this link into your browser:

What happens next?

It is clear to all of us at Canopy that our clients deserve public funding because they are invaluable cultural institutions. With a variety of funding strategies and vehicles to consider, there is also a potential route to public funding for every organization that brings a considerable value to its community.

However, voters cannot always see that value easily. One of the fastest and most powerful ways to show voters that value is to conduct an Economic Impact Assessment. These assessments analyze the direct, indirect, and induced economic impact that your organization will have on the surrounding economy.

Check out this case study about our engagement with Akron Zoo to see how evaluating their economic impact and community impact led to a huge boost in public support!

Congratulations to all the organizations that will be receiving more, continued, or new public support after this year’s election. We know it can be a long and unnerving journey! Don’t hesitate to reach out to us to discuss public funding possibilities for your organization. We love strategizing about the best ways to get public support, new or continued.

If your organization was recently “on the ballot,” let us know!

Keep reading if you want some more information on the basics of public funding.

Just the basics: Public Funding

While there are a plethora of public-funding structures and vehicles in use by various non-profit and cultural attractions across the country, there are two basic types of public funding: 1) Direct Appropriation; and 2) Public Support (Sales and Property Taxes).

Direct appropriation is most common when organizations (or half of a public/private partnership) reside within the structure of government, typically as a stand-alone department. These organizations budget within the larger government structure. While some ballot issues can affect government leadership and impose budgetary constraints, the amount of money the organization receives from public sources is not directly decided by voters themselves. Rather, final budget decisions are made by elected leaders and bureaucratic processes that distribute funds from a “general fund” or other non-specific government revenue account.

By contrast, some public funding options that rely on new or increased sales tax or property tax need direct voter approval to supply public funds directly to specific organizations or programs. Getting funding through these ballot initiatives requires a supportive community, and funding measures often delegate tax revenues between many diverse organizations. This helps improve total support for the tax increase, increasing the odds that it will pass voter approval.

These two broad categories are not mutually exclusive – some organizations are both part of the government and receive a voter-approved public support through a tax. Plus, there are multiple ways that funds can go to support operations or capital projects. The bottom line is that the specific funding mechanism you should consider is based almost entirely on your organization, your local community, and potential partnerships in your community that could yield more voter support.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you want to dive further into the complexities of public funding – we’d love to have a casual chat about any thoughts you have.

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