Couple on the sky ride at the zoo. Credit: Oakland Zoo

One of the 10 local measures appearing on this year’s general election ballot is a Measure Y, a parcel tax that would support the Oakland Zoo.

If passed by a simple majority of voters, the measure will impose an annual tax of $68 on single-family and commercial parcels and $68 per unit on multi-family residential buildings, for 20 years. The tax would be assessed starting in July 2023. 

The measure provides exemptions for some senior and low-income homeowners. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines low income as being 50% to 80% of an area’s median income and very low income as under 50%.

What would it pay for?

If passed, Measure Y would generate about $12 million per year. The money would be used to help pay for a variety of operational, staffing, maintenance, and capital improvement costs at the zoo, including upkeep of its veterinarian hospital, educational programs for school kids, and staff salaries

Because of the Oakland Zoo’s location in the hills, a fire-safety fund would also be established to better protect the zoo in the event of a wildfire. Some of the fire-safety measures it could pay for include new irrigation and sprinkler systems, transport vehicles to evacuate the zoo’s 850-plus animals, and improved entry and exit roads. 

A spokesperson for the Oakland Zoo told The Oaklandside in an email that if Measure Y passes, the zoo is committed to offering 25% year-round admission discounts to Oakland residents, increasing from 3,000 to 15,000 the number of OUSD students it provides with free field trips and bus rides, and increasing from 10,000 to 100,000 the number of free passes it gives to low-income Oaklanders annually.

The Oakland Zoo came close to shutting down during the summer of 2020 after the pandemic shuttered the park to visitors in March, and it was forced to dip into its budget reserves to operate. The zoo created an “animal care fund” to solicit donations from community members and philanthropy and was able to stave off closure until the park reopened with new COVID-safety measures in late July 2020.

Organizations endorsing Measure Y include the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, United Seniors of Oakland & Alameda County, Sierra Club, Alameda Labor Council, Oakland Education Association, East Bay Regional Park District, and Oakland Rising. A complete list of the organizations and elected officials endorsing the measure can be found here.

Oakland zookeepers recently joined Teamsters Local 853, a union that has also voiced support for Measure Y. 

Arguments against Measure Y

Not everyone believes the zoo tax is a good idea. Critics have noted that Oakland homeowners would carry the burden of supporting the zoo, even though most of its visitors come from outside of the city. By some estimates, only 15% of the zoo’s annual visitors are from Oakland.

Others have questioned whether the Conservation Society of California, the nonprofit organization that manages and operates the Oakland Zoo, actually needs the money.

The zoo already receives funding from the city, county, and parks district, in addition to philanthropic grants for education and wildlife conservation. According to financial statements, the zoo received over $170,000 in management fees from the city of Oakland in 2020 and 2021. According to data compiled by the League of Women Voters, the zoo also received over $400,000 from Oakland’s Transient Occupancy Tax during the 2021-22 fiscal year, $100,000 from the East Bay Regional Parks District through Measure FF, and approximately $1.2 million in tax dollars from Alameda County.

Critics have also said the language in Measure Y is not specific enough concerning what percentages of the revenue would be spent on specific needs. Instead, the funds could be used for any of the zoo’s operations.

The Oakland Zoo sees close to a million visitors each year and has an annual operating budget between $23 and $24 million.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.