Zoological Society proposes 3% electric tax on Limestone to start building zoo

, Decatur Daily

ATHENS — The North Alabama Zoological Society needs $65 million for the first phase of its proposed zoo in Limestone County and is hoping the County Commission will add a 3% monthly electric tax to all Athens Utilities customers, but the odds of that happening appear slim.

“We haven’t been able to raise the money through donations and grants for building the zoo,” said North Alabama Zoological Society (NALZS) Executive Director Ethan Woodruff. “We do a lot of educational activities and conservation initiatives, and we’ve been able to get donations and stuff to support that aspect of our organization, but it’s not enough. … There’s not enough donation potential for $65 million in our area.”

District 2 Commissioner Danny Barksdale said he does not think the commission should get involved.

“I wish them all the luck in the world with their zoo, but they need to raise their money on their own,” he said. “They don’t need the government involved.”

Woodruff said they tried to get enough donations and did their due diligence.

“It helped us prepare and do research and get all that stuff together, so that when we were ready, we could put this proposal out,” he said. “We’re at the point that now in order to get this accomplished, … it takes public funding to get this up and running.

“And that’s what we’re asking for, funding to get up and running. We’re not saying that this (tax) is going to be here forever and it’s what’s going to fund the zoo, it’s just funding the start of the zoo.”

The nonprofit NALZS was created in 2020, which is when they announced their plans to build a zoo near Buc-ee’s in Limestone County. It would be in between Decatur and Athens and along Interstate 65. Woodruff said the animals they plan to have will be along the lines of what can be seen at the Birmingham and Nashville zoos.

Woodruff said they plan for the zoo to be on 250 to 300 acres, and he estimates the total cost will be $1 million per acre. He said there will be five phases.

“What we’re trying to do with this funding is get enough for phase one, which will be the most expensive phase,” he said. “You’re going to build all the infrastructure and get everything set up so that you can do the additional phases, and everything can hook up together really well.”

There are several things that will happen in the first phase, Woodruff said.

“The $65 million will help us purchase the site,” he said. “Roughly $35 million for the construction of the first phase of the zoo, and some money to help with initial operating cost, and getting the animals here.”

Woodruff said they are proposing to use the tax funding to start the zoo, and they want to be good stewards of the money.

“We’re pretty realistic; we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew,” he said. “We’re very cautious to make sure we do it right.”

In 2001, every Limestone County resident started seeing a 1% tax on their Athens Utilities electric bill to pay off a county bond to pay for the Limestone County Jail. After refinancing, the County Commission paid off the jail early. Last summer the tax ended.

“That is the same concept that we’re going for as well,” Woodruff said. “What we’re saying is, they’re authorized at the maximum of 3% of the electricity on the utility bill.”

Woodruff said initially it would have to be a 30-year bond.

“But my hope is that it follows what has already historically been accomplished in Limestone County,” he said.

The first step, Woodruff said, is to get the Limestone County legislative delegation to pass a bill to allow the County Commission to vote on getting a bond. He said the process has been paused by the delegation.

“What’s going on at the moment is some of the leadership that are required to get a vote on the ballot are hesitant for several reasons. Right now, we’re in the process of getting enough support to show them that people are interested in voting on this,” Woodruff said. “We are looking at doing a special ballot next year to see if we can get that through.”

Woodruff said the plan is that the Limestone County Commission would obtain a $65 million bond if the delegation passes the bill.

“All the finances, all the money, all the taxpayers’ funds would be held and administered by the county,” he said.

Woodruff said if the County Commission votes on the bond and approves it, then there would be a countywide vote for the residents.

“We’ve been advocates since day one that if this is going to use taxpayer money, that the taxpayers had to have a say in it, and they have to have a say through a vote,” he said.

District 3 Commissioner Derrick Gatlin, who represents the area where the zoo would be located, said he has been against the plan from the beginning.

“When they came and spoke to us, I was against it,” he said. “The cost of living now is through the roof. A lot of folks are struggling to make ends meet, so I don’t think a tax on them to build a zoo is something that should be on the table for consideration.”

Gatlin said there are several reasons he opposes the bond and taxation.

“If we need to borrow some money for a big project for us, that would affect us, too,” he said.

Limestone County citizens need to know all the facts about the proposed taxation, Gatlin said. He said he does not believe NALZS has explained to people the whole proposal.

“I think if you ask the citizens of Limestone County, ‘Do you want a zoo?’ Well, yeah, they want a zoo,” Gatlin said. “‘Well, you want to raise your utilities to pay for it?’ ‘No, sir, I don’t.’ If you’re going to talk to people, ask them the whole question. Don’t just ask if y’all want a zoo, because everyone’s, ‘Oh, yeah, we’d like to have a zoo.’ ‘Do you want to pay for it?’ ‘Well, no, I don’t want to pay for it.'”

Nobody likes taxes, Woodruff said.

“A lot of these folks are also upset about some of the things that aren’t happening in their area,” he said. “They want better infrastructure, or they want improvement to their roads and traffic and things like that. Well, if we stay status quo, they’re not going to get better.”

Woodruff said the county could be improved by the taxes which will create the zoo.

“We have an economic impact study that says within the first six years, from starting and construction and the zoo being open three years, it’s going to bring in $117 million into the community. It’s going to produce 650 jobs,” he said. “If we want to take the tax burden off of people, then we need to invest in things that will bring in tax revenue.”

District 1 Commissioner Daryl Sammet is opposed to the tax on residents.

“The city of Huntsville isn’t supporting it, so we’re not about to put a tax on the folks of Limestone County that you know is not going to be supported anyway,” he said.

Mike Shelton, 72, from Athens, said he is opposed to the proposed tax on residents.

“I vote no on any Athens/Limestone utility tax to fund the proposed zoo. I’m sure there are other ways of funding it with various fundraising and grant avenues,” he said. “I think we have other pressing problems besides that.”

Shelton said now is not a good time to have to pay more taxes.

“Right now, everything is up. Eggs, milk, everything is up,” he said. “You’ve got couples who are having to work two jobs.”

Woodruff said there will be benefits from the zoo for county citizens, including free field trips for school children.

“Limestone County residents will get very discounted admissions. There’ll be free days specifically for Limestone County residents,” he said. “We know there are people that this will affect pretty hard, and we feel for that. And although we don’t have any control over that, we will be advocating for them.”

Janet Woodruff, 63, from Tanner, was opposed to the idea of an electric tax at first. She said the proposed location would be about five minutes from her house. However, she said the tax would not be much more than the tax she was paying for the jail, and she likes the idea of a zoo.

“I’ll get the free days,” she said. “If I go, I’ll take my granddaughter.”

Ethan Woodruff of NALZS said they want the zoo to be a regional attraction.

“We’re really grateful to have this opportunity to represent the people of north Alabama, not just Limestone County, who have been waiting for a zoo for so long,” he said. “We’re diligently trying to get it to happen.”

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