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Sales-tax hike urged for zoos, museums

Monday, May 15, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by William Mullen, Mickey Ciokajlo

Calling Chicago's museums and zoos a major economic force in the region's economy, a task force organized by the Civic Federation of Chicago is recommending a slight increase in the Cook County sales tax to help shore up disappearing funding to those institutions.

The proposal is coupled with a plan to lower property taxes paid by homeowners in the city and county by a total of $26.6 million a year. The sales tax in Cook County would increase a quarter of 1 percent, meaning shoppers for general merchandise in stores in the city and county would pay 2 1/2 cents more for every $10 purchase.

Crafted from four years of research and discussion by a blue-ribbon panel of city and county civic, business, academic and cultural leaders, the task force's report credits 12 major institutions for having a $1.1 billion economic impact on northeastern Illinois.

The report warns that dwindling governmental financial support and a bruising economy threaten operations in those institutions, undermining budgets that have forced many of them to reduce staff and cut some services in the last five years.

Whether the proposal succeeds depends on how seriously it is considered by city and county elected officials. They have been under the gun the last few years to hold the line on tax increases of any kind.

"I want to wait until I see [the report], but my initial reaction is if we're talking about supporting cultural institutions that have regional impact, it should be a regional tax," said County Commissioner Mike Quigley. He is one of the commissioners who united to defeat a sales-tax increase imposed in 2004 by County Board President John Stroger.

If the sales-tax increase does come to pass, it would raise an estimated $120 million to $125 million a year for cultural institutions, said Lawrence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a 112-year-old independent, non-partisan government watchdog organization.

The increase would also relieve the Chicago Park District and the Cook County Forest Preserve District of their responsibility to provide property tax-generated subsidies--currently more than $50 million a year--to 12 cultural institutions.

Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden receive help from the Forest Preserve District. The Park District helps fund the Adler Planetarium, Art Institute of Chicago, Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago History Museum, DuSable Museum, Field Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, Mexican Fine Arts Center, Museum of Science and Industry and Shedd Aquarium.

The Museum of Contemporary Art began receiving Park District funds recently but was not included in the task force study.

Funded by the Chicago Community Trust, the task force first gathered in 2002 out of concern that the Park District "was having a hard time meeting funding needs of Museums in the Park," Msall said. Museums in the Park is a consortium of cultural institutions located on park lands that receive district subsidies.

The task force spent considerable time and effort quantifying actual economic and cultural benefits from those institutions, enlisting independent scholars to gather and review data, Msall said.

In 2004 the 12 institutions in the study attracted 13.35 million visitors, nearly twice the attendance of all of the city's professional sports teams combined. Collectively, they employ 4,710 people, making them one of the largest employers in the region. In 2002 they poured nearly $486 million in direct spending into the regional economy, most inside Cook County. They form one of the principal lures in attracting big-spending out-of-town and foreign tourists.

"This report recognizes both the economic impact of these institutions and their need for public support to maintain their viability," Msall said. "There is a general recognition that all of them have been under tremendous financial pressure.

"These are world-renowned destination attractions drawing tourists and conventions to our city. They are our crown jewels, assets left by earlier visionary civic leaders that we must ensure that they continue to be assets to our community.

"Relying on property taxes is not the most equitable means of raising the revenues necessary to support these institutions."

The proposal calls for the County Board to impose the sales-tax increase while creating a Cultural Institution District within county borders to administer the funding.

About $65 million would go to the 13 targeted institutions for operating expenses, $40 million to capital funds and $15 to $20 million to "new and emerging institutions," according to the report.

In coming to its recommendation, the task force studied funding methods in other cities and considered several other possible revenue sources, including raising hotel, cigarette and liquor taxes.

"This has been an exciting process for the museum community," said Jacqueline Atkins, executive director of Museums in the Park, "seeing how government and business leaders understand the cultural infrastructure and its value to the region.

"It might not happen tomorrow, but this report is a very good step to find adequate and sustained funding for our cultural institutions."

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wmullen@tribune.com

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune



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