Questions Swirl Around Zoo Tax Measure 

Opponents contend that Measure A1 will allow the zoo to use proceeds from the proposed parcel tax to help fund a controversial expansion in the Oakland hills.

Oakland Zoo officials contend that Measure A1, a countywide parcel tax on the November ballot, will fund "animal care needs, including food, heating, and cooling." And their ballot argument is sure to pull at the heartstrings of East Bay animal lovers. But opponents of the measure say that the official language of the measure could allow the zoo to spend at least part of the proceeds from the $114 million parcel tax on a controversial expansion in the Oakland hills. And the debate over exactly how the zoo will use the proposed $12 tax on residential parcels and $72 on commercial properties may decide the fate of Measure A1.

Joel Parrott, the zoo's executive director, said in an interview that opponents' fears over how the tax money will actually be spent are misguided. "It's going to be used for operations and repairs to the existing zoo," he said. "We already have funded the next phase of the expansion project."

The Oakland Zoo's expansion plans worked their way through Oakland city government during the first half of last year before being approved in June 2011. Opponents of the expansion into upper Knowland Park filed an environmental lawsuit after the approval, but they subsequently lost and did not appeal. Nonetheless, they continue to argue that the project will have significant impacts that have not been adequately studied or mitigated. And they're concerned that Measure A1 parcel tax revenues could be spent on the expansion — rather than on caring for zoo animals.

"According to our lawyers and our reading of the measure, they clearly are related," said Ruth Malone of Friends of Knowland Park, a community group that has led the opposition to the expansion. "There's absolutely no question about this measure legally. It seems pretty clear that they can use this measure for the expansion."

The official summary that will appear before voters on the ballot states that the tax is needed to maintain and upgrade humane animal care and basic needs, retain veterinarians and animal specialists, care for wounded and endangered animals, support wildlife conservation, maintain children's educational programs, and keep entrance fees affordable. "People will read the summary of this and say, 'Oh, that's a good cause,'" Malone said. "But in this case, they may not realize that they're going to be financing the destruction of [Knowland] park, which has some really amazing resources."

The zoo's expansion plan includes new offices, a new veterinary hospital, and the centerpiece, an exhibit called California that highlights animals native to the state. Of the project's total $72 million tab, $40 million has been raised to date from both public and private sources, including a state grant for $7 million and $12 million from Oakland's Measure G, a bond passed with 75 percent of the vote in 2002. The remaining $30 million will be raised solely from private sources, Parrott said. "This measure is not to build California," he said, referring to the planned exhibit. "It's about operating the zoo and building programs as we go forward. ... If it comes to pass that this fails, the zoo will still go ahead with expansion."

According to Parrott, the ballot language stating that parcel tax revenues could be spent on expansion and new construction is designed to encompass the zoo's plans to build new exhibits and enclosures for chimpanzees, elephants, giraffes, and tigers. He also noted that the zoo could find itself in need of new buildings or facilities independent of the expansion plans. "That's the flexibility you need, because you can't predict for 25 years," he said. "It's not a devious way to say, 'Well, this capital improvement wasn't excluded.'"

An expenditure plan for the ballot measure includes items related to animal care and basic needs, education programs for children, and accessibility and affordability for visitors. It also notes that "the Zoo may undertake new projects and services consistent with the general purposes listed in this Expenditure Plan."

Parrott argued that the parcel tax is also necessary to ensure that the zoo can continue to offer field trips and other learning opportunities to Alameda County schoolchildren, and keep admission prices within reach for the county's low-income residents. "If you try to have the public support from too small of a base, then you wind up with an underfunded, expensive, inadequately programmed zoo," he said. "That's at the heart of it."

The zoo currently receives public support from the City of Oakland — this year amounting to approximately $539,000 from the general fund and $220,000 from the city's hotel tax -- as well as from the East Bay Regional Park District, including up to $700,000 annually from its general fund and $4 million grants in 1988 and 2008 from park measures AA and WW.

Measure A1 contains provisions for a citizen's oversight committee to ensure that revenues are spent as promised, and a sunset clause specifying that funding from the parcel tax will be discontinued if they aren't.

Yet for opponents like Malone, the expansion still proves problematic. "How can you out of one side of your mouth say, 'We don't have the money to take care of the animals we've got,' and out of the other side of your mouth say that you're going to build a $72 million expansion?" she said. "It just doesn't add up."

A four-page pamphlet on the measure mailed to East Bay homeowners last week seems to further call into question whether the zoo actually lacks funds. The glossy color mailer in support of Measure A1 referenced "animal care needs, including food, heating, and cooling," and looks to have been paid for directly by the zoo operator, the East Bay Zoological Society. Such mailers typically cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce and mail. The mailer did not cite a campaign account or outside funding source, and so appears to have been paid for by the zoo.

Correction: The original version of this story mistakenly reported that the Oakland Zoo only receives public support from the City of Oakland. It also receives financial support from the East Bay Regional Park District, funded by taxpayers in both Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

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