Kids and adults stand in front of the large viewing glass to watch the three sea lions and harbor seal swim around in their 200,000 gallon exhibit pool. Photo by Yocelin Gallardo
The Fresno Chaffee Zoo, a former city-run institution that lost its governmental status as part of the nationwide privatization movement that arose during the Reagan era, was close to losing its accreditation, and perhaps shutting down, due to lack of funding 10 years ago.
Now, a walk through the zoo will lead you through several recently renovated and brand-new exhibits. Sea Lion Cove, home to sea lions and pelicans, was built two years ago. Stingray Bay and the King Cobra Exhibit in the zoo’s reptile house have also been added in recent years. More new exhibits are slated to debut soon.
A large portion of the funding for these exhibits come from a one-tenth-of-a-cent sales tax earmarked for the zoo that passed in a 2004 Fresno County referendum vote. And now, with authorization for the tax expiring, the zoo hopes the required minimum of two-thirds of the voters on Election Day will vote to pass Measure Z, which will renew the tax for another decade.
Although the original measure breezed through to approval with 73 percent of the vote, some of those who supported it in 2004 are arguing that the problem has been fixed. Ten years of taxpayer funding was enough to improve the facilities and stabilize finances, they say, and the zoo needs to learn to live on private contributions.
“It’s up to the voters,“ said Alisha Anderson, campaign manager for “Yes on Measure Z.” “If everyone likes what we’re doing with this, then they’ll vote to continue it. Our zoo is great now, and it will be even more amazing.”
Not so fast, said Joan LeRoux, an occupational therapist who co-chairs the “No on Z” campaign. LeRoux describes herself as a supporter and donor to the zoo whom, at the same time, is critical of its lack of transparency, big cost overruns and use of the tax funds.
“We gave them $100 million. We paid for everything they wanted and now they’ve come back for more,” LeRoux said in an interview. “In my opinion, they have simply been living off the taxpayers and I think that needs to stop.”
‘Dramatic changes’ loom if measure fails
The zoo has been a source of education and entertainment in Fresno dating back to before 1929, when it officially became recognized by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. With financial struggles apparent, majority of voters in 2004 chose to help save the zoo.
The one-tenth-of-a-cent tax was expected to raise $100 million over the first decade – at least two-thirds of which was required to be spent on capital improvements projects. The other third could be spent on operations and maintenance.
Although the zoo is no longer in a desperate situation, many Fresnans have no problem with continuing to pay the tax for another decade.
“As I understand it, Measure Z is just a very, very small percent of taxes to help enhance the zoo, and I think it’s a great idea,” said Dr. Julie Constable, a Fresno State biology professor. “For each person, it’s almost not noticeable. It’s just when you pull all that money together it can make a difference.”
The zoo, located at 894 West Belmont Avenue off Highway 99 just 10 miles from Fresno State, is a resource for the university’s biology department. Constable has used it in previous years for her animal behavior class.
“It’s a nice resource to have, and it sounds like they’re expanding too, so that will be a big plus,” Constable said.
“When you start having larger and larger enclosures and larger areas you can do more observations and behavior studies, ecological studies. The more natural the habitat is, the more lifelike the behaviors are going to be.”
“Ten years ago, the zoo was on the verge of closing and losing its accreditation,” Anderson said. “It was really in bad shape. It was people caring so much and wanting that still in the community, they wanted to save it.”
In 2004, 73 percent voted to “save” the zoo. If the latest measure passes, which would require at least 66.7 percent of the vote on the Nov. 4 election, sponsors estimate it will raise $105 million over the next 10 years before coming up for renewal again in 2024.
Anderson said that if Measure Z were to fail, it would be more consequential to the zoo than many realize.
“It would be very dramatic and dramatic changes for the worse if this doesn’t pass,” Anderson said.
The zoo said it has a plan in place to stay financially stable through 2021 if the measure is rejected.
However, critics such as LeRoux have asked, if it’s sustainable, why does it still need taxpayer funding?
Zoo officials said while it may be sustainable, the failure of the measure would cause many consequential changes and put a stop to its improvements.
“We probably wouldn’t be in the dire straits we were in 10 years ago, but we wouldn’t be able to build anything new,” Anderson said. “We wouldn’t be able to expand and do these huge capital improvements that we’re doing now.”
The “Yes on Measure Z” campaign argues that the snowball effect that would result in the failure to pass the measure would lead the zoo back closer to where it was 10 years ago.
“It would kind of slowly get us back into the same thing,” Anderson said. “Not quite as drastic, but we wouldn’t be able to sustain ourselves at the level we are now.”
Opponents criticize zoo’s financial responsibility
The zoo is currently expanding with the addition of its new African Savannah Project.
It will bring back lions and rhinoceroses and add cheetahs, African elephants and meerkats. Animals such as giraffes, zebras and warthogs will also be able to be relocated to the new exhibits to give the zoo the opportunity to renovate the old exhibits for new animals.
Opponents have criticized the management of these projects.
Leroux cites the African Savannah Project, budgeted for nearly $56 million, as an example of irresponsible and bad planning by the zoo. The original budget for the project allocated a maximum of $40 million to be spent developing 15 acres.
Now, the cost projection has gone up, even though the space involved has been reduced to 12 acres.
Likewise, Sea Lion Cove was originally budgeted at $5 million then pushed up to $7.5 million. It was completed at a $10.5 million price tag.
Fairness of tax debated
LeRoux also noted that Measure Z is for a sales tax. A sales tax is generally seen as putting a greater proportional burden on low-income families, because they have to spend higher percentages of their salaries than those who are better off, and thus able to save significant portions of their incomes.
Measure Z supporters dismiss the argument as irrelevant in this case, as it is a tax of a mere one-tenth of one percent.
“It’s such a small increment,” said Dr. Jeffrey Cummins, a Fresno State political science professor. “We’re talking about a pretty miniscule share of the sales tax. I don’t think it’s going to make or break poor, low-income families,”
The zoo has been able to make additions without increasing its admission prices over the past 10 years – which rest at $7 for adults and $3.50 for children and senior citizens 62 and older. Anderson said the rates are under half the typical price of admission for comparable zoos.
“They want to keep admission prices affordable,” LeRoux said. “Affordability is an issue for low income families and yet … every low-income family in Fresno will be taxed so that we can keep the zoo more affordable.”
Anderson said if Measure Z does not pass, the zoo will have to make up for the lost revenue in a way that would make it less affordable for low-income families and result in fewer people visiting the zoo on an annual basis.
“If this were not to pass, what would happen is our admission prices would have to increase dramatically, and they haven’t had to in the past 10 years because of Measure Z,” Anderson said.
Measure Z opponents at financial disadvantage
On the campaign trail, “No on Measure Z” faces a difficult task in getting its message heard. The “Yes on Measure Z” campaign is estimated to have raised over $660,000 in private donations, more than 22 times what “No on Measure Z” has been able to raise.
“It’s a huge disadvantage,” Cummins said. “The anti side is going to have a really hard time trying to communicate why it’s not in the voters best interest to pass Measure Z.”
The campaign for the original Measure Z raised about $1.3 million in donations in 2004. A large part of the “Yes on Measure Z” strategy was to use the iconic “Nosey the Elephant” signs that dotted front yards across Fresno County a decade ago.
They are being used again for this year’s campaign.