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Press Pause on Zoo Tax Proposal

The Potawatomi Zoo is an important local attraction. For generations, families from our area have visited Indiana’s Oldest Zoo to see the more than 400 animals that call it home. Last year more than 220,000 people came to visit.

Earlier this month the zoo announced they are seeking approval from the Indiana General Assembly to implement a countywide Food and Beverage Tax, to be collected from transactions at bars and restaurants or from a caterer, anywhere in St. Joseph County.

The Zoo indicates the tax is necessary to support its 20-year, $37 million master plan. They believe the new tax could generate about $1 million annually.

If the General Assembly approves, it will be up to the local City Councils in South Bend and Mishawaka, as well as the County Council. Two of the three bodies would have to approve for the tax to be implemented.

Currently, some 27 communities in Indiana have a Food and Beverage Tax as a tool to help enhance the quality of place within the community. We don’t believe the tool is a bad one, if used the right way. We believe the proposal by the Zoo is not the right way to go, and the pause button should be hit on their proposal. We’ll ask the General Assembly and our local Council’s to oppose the proposal.

We are blessed with many wonderful attractions here in our area. Think about places like Four Winds Field, the Morris Performing Arts Center, the Studebaker Museum, the History Museum, our local parks systems, and many other fine places that enhance the local quality of life. All face challenges like the Zoo, how do they fund the on-going maintenance and operations, deal with aging facilities, and fund necessary improvements that will help keep them competitive.

Imagine each of them, and others lining up making a similar ask if the Zoo is successful. The General Assembly and our local Councils are then put in the difficult position of deciding if and when a tax is warranted for one attraction or another. All of this in a County that has historically been one of the most taxed.

We believe a different approach is necessary to help meet the needs of St. Joseph County. Given the broad community needs, the business community believes a more collaborative approach is necessary. Like we suggested to the Zoo in 2015, we believe any such consideration of a new tax needs to include an inclusive process involving many attractions, each of the communities in our County, and representatives of the food and beverage industry.

That process must first identify parameters by which those funds generated should be spent. It should also include guidelines on ranging from who should be eligible to apply for funds to who ultimately would review applications for funds and how funds might be disbursed.

Other communities have a capital improvement board that ultimately meets to review applications. This creates a little competition amongst projects, but in the end the best project gets selected. A similar model could work here.

Perhaps locally a body like the Hotel-Motel Tax Board could perform a similar function. It currently is made up of representatives from each of the communities as well as the industry.

Once an inclusive and collaborative plan has been prepared, then we take some time to help educate the public, the General Assembly, and local elected officials on the proposal, what it entails, and how it might benefit the community. The current proposal includes no such plan, and should be put on hold.



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