GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Two of Grand Rapids’ most popular educational destinations – the John Ball Zoo and Grand Rapids Public Museum — are asking Kent County voters for long-term help this November in running their operations.
The two institutions are asking voters to approve a 10-year property tax increase that would add .44 mills to annual property tax bills.
The tax would add $3.12 a month, or $37.44 a year, for the owner of a $170,000 house, according to supporters of the tax request.
In a separate question on the Nov. 8 ballot, Kent County voters also will be asked to support an additional 70-cent surcharge for an enhanced 911 public safety dispatch system.
The proposed zoo and museum tax would generate about $8.9 million a year for the two publicly owned institutions. Proceeds from the tax would be split evenly between the zoo and the museum, which continue to be managed by separate boards.
If the millage passes, Kent County voters would get discounted zoo admission for seniors, and school groups could get in free. At the museum, Kent County children age 17 and younger would get free admission and Kent County adults would get discounted $5 admission – $3 for seniors – and free parking.
The millage is intended to establish a stable funding base for the zoo and museum after both have struggled over the past decade to establish business plans that have relied on dwindling support from local and state government and private fundraising.
The campaign behind the millage has drawn the support of Kent County Commissioner Harold Voorhees, a fiscal conservative and Republican who says he supports the request because it places the choice in the hands of voters.
“This is the greatest opportunity for the people of the county to decide how and where they want their money to go,” said Voorhees, a former state legislator and Wyoming mayor.
“We are in a growing economic area and we need to continue to invest in the fertilizer that’s bringing that business. A big part of it is culture,” said Voorhees. “When businesses are looking where to locate, in the top five are the cultural activities of a community.”
The 125-year-old zoo, which Kent County purchased from the city of Grand Rapids for $1 in 1989, currently relies on a $2.5 million county appropriation every year. If the millage passes, that funding would end.
Zoo officials say the millage would fund zoo operations and allow for the repair of its aging infrastructure and exhibits. It would also allow the zoo to implement the next phase of their master plan, which includes renovations to the Children’s Zoo, new exhibits and expanded educational programs.
Founded in 1854, the Grand Rapids Museum is the state’s oldest and second-largest museum. It has been owned by the city for most of its history. Its existence is enshrined in the city charter.
The museum’s holdings include an estimated 250,000 artifacts held in the Van Andel Museum Center, 272 Pearl St. NW, the Community Archives and Research Center, 223 Washington St. SE, and the Voigt House Victorian Museum, 115 College Ave. SE.
The city stopped paying into the museum from its general fund in 2007 as it struggled to make ends meet in the face of dwindling state revenue sharing funds and a declining local tax dollars. In recent years, the city has sent the museum $400,000 a year from its Transformation Fund to help it keep the doors open.
A private non-profit museum group also has built up a $38 million endowment to help support operations. Museum Director Dale Robertson says the endowment needs to be over $100 million to fully sustain the museum.
Leaders of both institutions say the millage proceeds would give them the opportunity to expand their educational programs while freeing them from the need to raise entrance fees – a move that has reduced their attendance and participation in the past.
The two institutions decided to work together on a single millage rather than compete against each other and other nonprofit causes for support from the community.
While the zoo and museum have benefited from private foundations that have allowed them to expand their brick-and-mortar facilities and add new features, the millage backers say foundations are reluctant to donate for day-to-day operations.