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How Is The Columbus Zoo Governed?

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium entrance sign
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
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Questions about the Columbus Zoo’s governance structure and lack of transparency are not new. In 2014, as the zoo was asking Franklin County voters to approve a large tax increase, then-WOSU reporter Mandie Trimble dug into how the zoo is run.

This story, originally published in April 2014, provides an interesting look back at the same questions the zoo faces today, following the March 2021 recent resignations of director Tom Stalf and chief financial officer Greg Bell.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is ranked as one of the nation's best. It has grown immensely in the past two decades, and much of that success and growth is thanks to Franklin County taxpayers.

Since the 1980s, the Columbus Zoo has relied heavily on a tax levy to pay for capital projects that helped shoot the zoo to the top. That levy is up for renewal, and for the first time in recent memory, it has organized opposition as some balk at the size of the increase and its permanence.

Who Runs The Zoo?

The Columbus Zoo's request for a large and permanent property tax increase has prompted a closer look at how it's run.

The zoo is funded through a mix of tax dollars, private donations, admission fees and concessions revenue. Like all non-profits, some of its books are open, but unlike government agencies, the zoo is not completely transparent.

First, let's start with who runs the Columbus Zoological Parks Association, the legal name for the Columbus Zoo. The Zoo's governance structure is complicated. Unlike most non-profits, it has two governing boards. One oversees the zoo's operations, and has 22 members. The other board oversees how the zoo spends its property tax money, a nd has 18 members, some appointed by the city, some by the county and some by that other zoo board.

Zoo CEO Tom Stalf answers to both.

"We present to the board, and those representatives from the city, the county and the non-profit all work together to approve our budgets, and our expansion and our enhancements," Stalf said.

The two boards hold joint open meetings. And the public can also request the meetings' minutes.

Non-Profit Status

As a non-profit, the zoo must file a detailed public federal tax form called the 990. But because the zoo is a private, non-profit corporation, it's exempt from Ohio's public records laws.

For example, unlike government agencies, the zoo does not have to release personnel records. Two years ago when the zoo's former CEO Dale Schmidt left abruptly, the zoo denied WOSU's request for documents related to his resignation.

The zoo would only say Schmidt left for personal reasons. Tax forms filed a year later show the zoo paid Schmidt a $250,000 severance.

Current zoo CEO Stalf says some matters, such as personnel issues or even bidding processes, will not be shared with the public for proprietary business reasons.

But he maintains the zoo is transparent.

"Public records are on the zoo's website. As far as looking at our 990s, they're accessible on our website," Stalf said. "You can just go to columbuszoo.org and look at the information. You can see my salary. You can see what we're spending and how we're spending it."

WOSU wanted to compare the zoo's transparency to other non-profits. The group Charity Navigator evaluates the practices of non-profits. Charity Navitator vice president Joanne Reisser, who has since left the company, gives the zoo high marks.

"Columbus Zoo gets a perfect score," Reisser said.

In 2008, Reisser says the IRS revamped the 990 form to require more information, in a sense, forcing non-profits to be more transparent. But she adds not-for-profits are not obligated to open up personnel files. In some cases, Reisser says, doing so could open them up to legal action.

"Short of there being legal issues," Reisser said, "the zoo is under no obligation to disclose anything."

How Money Is Spent

As for how the zoo spends its money, its balance sheet is detailed on that 990 tax form. Over the past three years, the zoo's revenues and expenses both rose, with expenses rising slightly more than revenues. It still ended 2012 in the black.

The zoo's largest expense: $17 million in salaries. It spent $1 million on marketing, $1.5 million on maintenance, and nearly $1 million to feed the animals. The zoo spends a lot on travel, $350,000, but its workers do have to travel to far-off places like Asia for pandas or Amsterdam for monkeys.

Does levy money pay for all of this? The short answer is yes. Stalf says 15% of levy money goes to operations.

"We have had 29 years of fiscally responsible organization," Stalf said.

Levy opponents point to the salaries of top zoo employees, more specifically, their raises. So we looked at what the zoo's top paid employees make. According to the most recently available 990 form, Stalf makes $235,000. Jack Hannah makes $301,000.

Other top employees' salaries exceed $200,000.

"We would have no problem with anyone's compensation package if they're getting paid what the market dictates," said Dan McCormick, who works with Citizens for Responsible Taxation."Over the last four years, they've given out wage increases of 25% where most people are getting 3%, which is way out of line with the local economy."

We looked at their raises. Top earners, in 2011, saw raises from 8-34%. But the next year, raises were lower, between 3-14&.

While these wage increase seem large, they're not as generous as those of other non-profit zoos. The median raise at three of the country's biggest non-profit zoos in 2012 — San Diego, Chicago and Philadelphia — was 20%.

The bottom line: zoos are big complicated businesses, and Franklin County voters are getting a chance to say how theirs is run.