Leonard the lion had a rough life before he arrived at the Oakland Zoo. The 4-month-old cub had been deprived of decent food and shelter. He still suffers from the trauma of his early abuse.
That's the sad story in a tug-at-the-heart campaign urging Alameda County residents to vote "Yes on A1 for Animal Care."
Leonard is the mascot for supporters of Measure A1. The Oakland Zoo Humane Animal Care/Education Protection Measure would levy a $12-per-house parcel tax on Alameda County residential properties ($72 on commercial). That comes out to $5.5 million per year for the next 25 years -- $137.5 million. (Seniors older than 67 and low-income residents are exempt but would have to file a waiver.)
Zoo officials insist they desperately need the funds to pay for the animals' basic care and to maintain education programs.
Yet when this newspaper's editorial board asked for budget projections to justify the tax, zoo officials could not provide them. We have no idea where this particular amount came from nor how even in the next five years -- much less 25 -- the money would be spent beyond general categories.
The zoo is on city of Oakland land. However, it is managed by the East Bay Zoological Society, which is a private nonprofit. This is important to note because it means that unlike government agencies that receive public funds, the East Bay Zoological Society is not subject to the same open meeting laws that help insure transparency.
A lot of things do not compute.
If the zoo is in such dire straits that it is asking voters to pay for the animals' food, medical care and to repair rundown enclosures, how can officials be planning a grand $72 million expansion that includes a 34,000-square-foot visitor center, restaurant, campground and gondola ride? That project has encountered fierce resistance from those who argue it would destroy natural habitat in Knowland Park. They also form the core opposition to the parcel tax.
Zoo officials have said people are willing to give money for the expansion but not for ongoing care for the animals themselves. Even if that is the case, how does it make sense to embark upon a major project that will cost tens of millions of dollars if you don't have the financing for your basic core programs?
How can you expect Alameda County voters to pick up that tab?
On top of the slew of other tax measures coming our way from the state, school districts and cities? On top of the -- in my case -- 18 special taxes I already pay?
How can the zoo ask voters for over $100 million at a time when many people have lost their homes and jobs and our county has slashed services to some of our most vulnerable residents?
The East Bay Zoological Society and its supporters say the A1 tax would: 1) pay for animals' food, shelter and medical care; 2) go toward wildlife conservation; 3) maintain children's educational programs/field trips; and 4) keep zoo admission affordable.
They have repeatedly stated that the funds could not be used for any other purpose.
This is why it's important to read what the measure actually says as opposed to what supporters say it means.
Section I H specifically defines allowed "services and projects" as "not limited to acquisition of, caring for and publicly displaying animals ... improving existing facilities; providing and supporting educational and conservation programs. ..."
In other words, not restricted to what zoo supporters claim the money legally has to be spent for.
In fact, expenditures may include "construction of new or renovation of existing capital facilities projects."
Friends of Knowland Park and other A1 opponents suspect the broad language is a ruse to get taxpayer money for the expansion. Zoo officials deny it. They, in turn, accuse expansion opponents of being sore losers who are twisting the facts.
Zoo officials say the reason the measure is written so broadly is that they wanted to maintain flexibility in the event of unforeseen circumstances down the road.
Here's what we know: The zoo already gets millions a year in public funding from the city and state.
Times may not be as flush as in past years, but the zoo is not at risk of going out of business.
I love the Oakland Zoo. It is a wonderful resource for the whole Bay Area and beyond.
But A1 is a blank check written by the Alameda County taxpayers.
That's why I'll be voting no on Tuesday.