Voters in Tucson will decide next month on a proposed sales tax that would solely benefit the Reid Park Zoo, which officials say will face some tough decisions if the initiative doesn’t pass.

Propositions 202 and 203, or the Future of Your Zoo initiative, would raise between $8 million and $10 million annually, by increasing the city’s sales tax by one-tenth of one percent for the next 10 years.

One of the two propositions would create the temporary tax, while the other would enable the change through the city code; supporters say both must pass to accomplish the zoo’s goals. Tucson’s sales tax is currently a total of 8.6 percent.

The zoo just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and while officials are proud to have witnessed its growth over the years, the aging facilities are creating some financial strain.

“Some of the infrastructure — especially some of the things underground — and some of the habitats that we have, they’re reaching 30, 40, 50 years old and they’re getting to a point where they really need replacement in order to meet our standards,” said Nancy Kluge, president of the Reid Park Zoological Society.

The society has been successful over the years in raising funds for new exhibits, but the infrastructure needs are beyond the scope of fundraising, Kluge said.

“We put out a carefully thought out plan in coordination with some national-level zoo consultants that would address the infrastructure issue, but also give Tucson some really great, wonderful features,” she said.

“We know our tigers need some more space, so what we’ve done is looked at creating a fantastic tiger conservation center that will teach the public about how endangered these species are.”

The Reid Park Zoo houses Malayan tigers, of which there are only 300 left in the world, Kluge said.

“For us to be able to breed those tigers could literally keep their population in the world and keep them from going extinct,” she said. “But at the same time we thought, let’s make this wonderful.”

The zoological society has been in talks with a Tucson company that creates overhead crossing trails, like one at the Cleveland Zoo.

“It gives the visitors something fascinating but also gives the tigers something interesting,” Kluge said.

The society is considering other ideas, such as a treetop playground, where children would be at treetop-level and eye-to-eye with lemurs that are crossing through trails, Kluge said.

“We’re looking at having hippos with underwater viewing. They’re 5,000- pound animals that, underwater, are as graceful as dancers,” she said. “So for the public to be able to see that is not only a wonderful experience, but it teaches them to love those animals and helps us convey how important conservation is to keep those animals in the wild.”

The plan is to replace the underground sewer, broken water pipes and guardrails while the new exhibits are being built, Kluge said. “It’s a way of fixing the things that will have to be fixed regardless, while giving Tucson something great,” she said.

If the sales tax passes, the future construction at the zoo will bring new jobs to town, as well as make the zoo a tourist destination, Kluge said.

The society wants to build an African safari lodge where, from the second floor, people would be able to view giraffes, elephants and rhinos.

“That will seat 500 people indoors, that makes the zoo a destination for meeting planners and that’s why Visit Tucson came out in favor for the sales tax, because of the economic development that could create by having a really nice venue and what that can do for our tourism business and hotels and restaurants in the area,” Kluge said.

“With half-a-million visitors a year, the zoo is the largest attended cultural attraction in Southern Arizona, so it’s a key part of Tucson,” she added. “It’s a way that visitors can learn to love animals, it’s a way that children can learn about science and at the same time, it’s a place that families can make connections. It’s also an economic driver to Tucson.”

Opponents dislike sales-tax method

Critics, however, say a sales-tax increase is the wrong way to finance such changes, especially since not all who would pay the tax support the concept of zoos or visit Reid Park’s.

“The people who support the zoo should step up to the plate and donate and support the zoo financially. They shouldn’t pass another tax along to the general public,” said resident Robert Reus, who grew up in Tucson and has been a frequent attendee of City Council meetings since moving back to town in 2001.

“People can go to the zoo and pay admission if that’s what they want to do. I personally object to keeping animals in close quarters for people’s amusement.”

The zoo uses city land tax-free, the staff is paid by the city and the zoo itself is already subsidized very heavily, Reus said, adding that he has no objection to any of that.

“To ask for an additional tax on everything I buy, including my dog food and essentials of life, to support a zoo I will never go to, that seems like too much,” Reus said.

accreditation at risk

The zoo recently had an assessment done on the property, and if the funding doesn’t come through, the zoo will be at risk of losing its accreditation, Kluge said.

“We have to be responsible, so we have to create a plan for if (the tax) doesn’t pass for keeping our accreditation, because that’s critical,” Kluge said. “It might be that we no longer have tigers here at the zoo. It might be that we close off the flamingo area instead of building that (treetop) playground.”

The zoo will maintain its safety standards and still be nice, but some tough decisions will have to be made, should the propositions not pass at the polls, Kluge said.

Zoological Society funding the campaign

Since April, the Reid Park Zoological Society has contributed $180,000 to The Future of Your Zoo campaign, making up all but $200 of the campaign’s donations, according to campaign finance records.

The campaign had spent just over $137,000 as of Oct. 15, with more than $56,000 going toward gathering petitions, roughly $20,000 on yard signs and close to $25,000 spent on legal fees, according to campaign finance records. As of Oct. 15, the campaign had just more than $42,000 left in its account.

For more information, visit futureofyourzoo.com.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlinschmidt

Public safety reporter covering police, fire, courts, and sports-related legal issues.