Franklin County Commissioners Send Message on Tax Money

Franklin County Commissioners passed a formal resolution reminding the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium of its obligation to ensure the proper spending of taxpayer approved taxes.

It was kind of a rebuke, following revelations highlighted in March by The Dispatch on misuse of zoo resources by former Columbus Zoo CEO and President Tom Stalf, former CFO Greg Bell and two other former executives who cost the zoo at least $ 631,000.

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Kevin boyce

“Considering what has happened over the last year or so with regard to the zoo, we are taking all possible measures to ensure that this does not happen again and that we protect our contribution to the royalties paid to the zoo. to the best of our ability, ”Commissioner Kevin Boyce told The Dispatch after Tuesday’s meeting. “It allows us to continue to be more deliberate about this oversight. “

Commissioner John O’Grady added that “those appointed by the non-public sector to the (zoo’s) board of directors should remember that over the past 50 years, nearly $ 1 billion in money of the taxpayer was invested in the zoo… It is the asset of the community, and we I don’t want anyone to forget it.

John O'Grady

Among other issues, The Dispatch’s investigation found that Stalf and Bell searched for years for tickets paid for by the zoo’s marketing department so that their family members can attend various entertainment events for free. The two men also made arrangements for family members live in houses owned or controlled by the zoo and set rental prices at rates below market rates, reports the newspaper.

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“Culture of Law” at the Columbus Zoo

The results prompted the zoo’s board of directors to hire an outside accounting firm, Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP to conduct a formal audit review of zoo expenses and practices. Among other things, the review found that Stalf had used the zoo funds to purchase an RV for his exclusive use and had taken it to Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in Lake Erie to a family trip. He also personally selected the supplier for a $ 2 million cabin building project at The Wilds, a private non-profit safari park and wildlife conservation center near Cumberland in Muskingum County which is managed by the Columbus Zoo, and has not solicited a tender. .

A separate forensic audit conducted in the months following the resignation of leaders also described “a global culture of law” among zoo officials.

The audit found, however, that there had been no misuse of the zoo’s levy funds, which accounted for around 20% of the zoo’s overall revenue of nearly $ 92 million in 2019.

Deputy county attorney Jeanine Hummer said on Tuesday that commissioners have the power to put the tax on the zoo before voters. It was last to vote in the 2015 general election and was passed by a large majority, with nearly 76% of voters approving the 0.75 mil renewal fee.

According to the Franklin County Auditor’s Office, the tax currently costs homeowners about $ 16 per $ 100,000 of assessment. Last year, that resulted in nearly $ 19.8 million in taxes, and this year collections have reached nearly $ 20 million.

Hummer said the tax has generated a total of $ 113.7 million over the past six years for the zoo. Under existing agreements, the spending of these levy funds requires the oversight and approval of an 18-member board, with six members each appointed by the county, city of Columbus and the zoo, she said. declared.

“This is a separate body that controls these levy funds,” Hummer said. “This resolution sets out and reaffirms the authority that has been put forward in a binding contractual agreement with the Columbus Zoological (Park) Association, to enable this appointed council to approve any expenditure related to these levy funds. We are here today to make sure the public understands this and to reaffirm what has been put forward in this binding agreement. “

By Tuesday’s resolution, the Council of Commissioners formally recognized “historic and continuing financial assistance to the Columbus Zoological Park Association through the provision of the proceeds of the royalty” and the expectation of the Commissioners “that all royalty funds be transferred. to the association are spent each year only after affirmative approval.

Boyce called the resolution “financial prudence on our part.”

“We are following the detailed procedure, ensuring that the monies collected are allocated and used in the right way,” he said. “You can expect us to be a bit more deliberate with the zoo regarding the distribution of these funds. They must earn that trust, not only with the Council of Commissioners, but with the public. “

Boyce later added that the Commissioners “have a solemn duty to the public to do everything in our power to protect these funds and the way they are used and to ensure that this does not happen again, at least. with funds withdrawn ”.

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