Feb 14, 2022 - News

Scoop: Columbus Zoo owed back taxes

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium entrance.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium entrance. Photo: Grahm S. Jones, courtesy of the zoo

The Columbus Zoo has repaid nearly $44,000 in back taxes for two rental properties tied to last year's financial scandal.

Why it matters: This is another ripple of mismanagement and corruption by former zoo leaders in recent years. These decisions don't just impact the bottom line — they're also a blow to the public's trust in a beloved central Ohio institution.

Catch up quick: The two rental properties originally received tax exemptions in the early 2000s because they were used to house visiting zoo personnel, like veterinarians.

  • But eventually, former chief financial officer Greg Bell rented a property on Powell Road to his daughter for below-market rent, an investigation found.
  • The other, on Riverside Drive, was rented to an unrelated, undisclosed tenant.

Between the lines: Delaware County discovered in 2019 that the properties weren't being used for a tax-exempt purpose, emails obtained by Axios show.

  • The zoo started making regular payments in 2020, but didn't pay the $44,000 in back taxes until last summer, after the larger scandal came to light.
  • Delaware County Auditor George Kaitsa tells Axios the zoo likely owed more. The statute of limitations only allows for five years of taxes to be collected.

The latest: The zoo filed paperwork with the county last month asking to reclaim its exemptions.

What they're saying: Zoo officials weren't available to comment by publishing time, a spokesperson said.

State of play: The way the zoo skirted paying property taxes is now illegal. Starting this year, owners receiving tax exemptions must notify the county if they're no longer using a property for nonprofit work, under a new Ohio law.

Of note: Former zoo president and CEO Tom Stalf rented a third home to his in-laws, in Franklin County, but an auditor spokesperson says those property taxes were paid.

By the numbers: About 20% of the nonprofit zoo's annual budget of $92 million comes from Franklin County property taxes.

  • In addition to the $44,000 in back taxes and at least $631,000 lost due to officials' misspending, the zoo also spent money — though it's still unclear how much — hiring a law firm, auditing firm and search firm to recover from the situation and find a new CEO.
  • So far, $143,000 has been reclaimed through a settlement.

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