RIVERBANKS Zoo is easily the top attraction in the Midlands - and one of the biggest draws in the Southeast - but its request of a tax increase to pay for upgrades couldn't come at a worse time.
Zoo officials are pitching a $40 million plan that, if approved by Lexington and Richland county councils, would add about $4 annually to the taxes paid on a $100,000 house. The plan calls for a new Asian complex, complete with new species; the return of a sea lion exhibit; a Children's Garden; and renovation of the entrance, which was built in 1987.
In better times, this would be an easy "yes." Not today.
That doesn't mean never, though. Instead of "no," the councils' response should be "not now."
The zoo has earned the support of local governments and taxpayers. For more than three decades, it has done us proud. It draws about a million people each year, is one of the nation's top 10 zoological parks and botanical gardens and has been voted the top travel attraction of the year multiple times by the Southeast Tourism Society. People from across the nation marvel at Riverbanks' collection of animals housed in natural habitat exhibits and its 70-acre botanical garden.
Ably led by Palmer "Satch" Krantz, its director for all but two of its more than 30 years, the zoo is a well-run facility. It's not known to be wasteful and is hardly a drag on taxpayers. While the zoo receives funding from Lexington and Richland counties, much of its operating budget comes from admission fees, the sale of food and gifts and members of the Riverbanks Society.
It pains us to suggest delaying funds the zoo would use to improve upon the standard of excellence it has set for itself and that we in this community - along with visitors across the nation - have come to expect.
But not now. Not during the biggest recession in most of our lifetimes. Not at a time when school districts are cutting back and letting teachers go. Not when local governments are spending less on essential services. Not when more and more taxpayers are losing their jobs and their homes.
Many local governments have refused to raise taxes during these difficult times, instead opting to cut services. There's no justification for a tax increase, even one this small, particularly if it's not going toward bolstering essential basic services that have been slashed.
When things get better - and they will, although we don't know exactly when - and when the councils have ensured that basic service needs are addressed, the zoo should be among the first priorities they consider.
We realize that the biggest reason Riverbanks has been able to stay lively and alluring has been its creativity and ability to add attractions, whether it's been koalas and gorillas or the renovated 55,000-gallon Indo-Pacific tank in the Aquarium Reptile Complex. That must continue.
But the timing has to be right. It would be unwise to build up the zoo when basic services that citizens depend on every day go lacking.