Judge rules against zoo on Cass County tax district

A judge rules that commissioners weren’t required to put the proposal up for a vote.

06/06/2012 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 6:40 PM

A circuit judge ruled against the Kansas City Zoo’s effort to get a taxing district on the ballot in Cass County.

The judge found that, even though the zoo collected enough signatures from registered voters on petitions to hold an initiative election, the Cass County Board of Commissioners was not obligated under state law to place the issue on the ballot.

“The statute’s plain and ordinary meaning makes the county commission the ultimate arbiter of whether to place the petition question, and other similar questions, on the ballot,” Judge R. Michael Wagner wrote in his order dated May 15.

Chuck Caisley, who was head of the campaign committee for the Friends of the Zoo, said he was disappointed by the ruling.

“We think that the language of the statute is clear,” Caisley said Tuesday, “and that the Cass County Commission had, essentially, a duty, once we had enough signatures under the law, to place this on the ballot.”

A similar civil case is pending in Platte County, where the Friends of the Zoo is also trying to get on the ballot.

The nonprofit zoo organization, which operates the Kansas City Zoo under contract with the city, was attempting to create a zoo tax district in Jackson, Clay, Platte and Cass counties in Missouri. The aim was to ask voters to approve a one-eighth-cent sales tax to support the zoo.

Last year, volunteers collected enough signatures to qualify for November elections in Clay, Cass and Platte counties. The Jackson County Legislature agreed to hold an election without a petition and the Clay County Commission agreed to place the initiative on the ballot there.

But commissioners in Platte and Cass counties decided not to put the initiative on the ballot, prompting lawsuits.

Cass County Commissioner Brian Baker, who was acting presiding commissioner at the time, said Tuesday that the state legislature, in passing the law that allowed the zoo to seek a tax district, intentionally reserved for the county commissions a final decision on whether to hold an election. The bill originally would have required a vote, but it was amended in the Tourism Committee.

“We appreciate the legislature maintaining that local control because we have things in Cass County that we need to address, and we think our tax dollars should stay here for infrastructure, law enforcement and services our citizens expect us to provide,” Baker said.

Wagner rejected the zoo’s argument that the case was about citizen initiative rights, noting that “Missouri citizens have not been granted an unlimited right to the use of the initiative process at the local government level.” He cited the precedent of Clay Chastain losing his court case to force Kansas City to build a light rail system that was approved by voters.

The Friends of the Zoo had estimated a tax in all four counties would generate about $17.6 million a year. The tax in just Jackson and Clay counties is expected to generate about $14.2 million. The zoo’s previous budget was $11.6 million, which included $3.5 million from Kansas City.

The zoo tax passed easily in Jackson County, although with a low voter turnout. It narrowly passed in Clay County.

In return for approving the tax, residents of those counties get reduced admission to the zoo, reduced membership rates, four free days at the zoo a year, free field trips for schools and a zoomobile to bring educational programs to their communities.

The tax revenue also will help the zoo build a $15 million penguin exhibit, which is slated to open in late 2013.

Friends of the Zoo had hoped to one day expand the zoo district across the state line to Kansas after establishing it in Missouri. Now officials are considering their options.

“We are going to think about the pros and cons of any further legal action, up to and including an appeal,” Caisley said.

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