How the ZAP Tax Helped Local Arts and Zoos Survive the Pandemic

In the past year and a half, arts, cultural organizations and nonprofits across the country have struggled as Covid-19 closed businesses. However, organizations in Salt Lake County have had some financial pressures alleviated through the Zoo, Arts, and Parks (ZAP) program. A quick refresher on the ZAP tax: ZAP is a sales tax add-on voted upon by the people in Salt Lake County. It is a .1% increase in the local sales tax, and proceeds support funding for arts, cultural, recreational and zoological organizations. After initially failing in 1993, the ZAP program was overwhelmingly passed by residents in 1996, and has remained popular, being renewed in 2004 and 2014.

A sales tax of only 1 cent per every $10 spent may not seem like much, but according to the ZAP program’s historical funding data, they have awarded $276 million to arts and cultural organizations since its creation. Organizations are divided into Tiers I and II, with budget specifications to delineate between the two tiers. The zoological category stands alone with a separate definition. Every organization must apply to be a recipient of the funds. Tier I is made up of 22 large non-profit organizations who have a budget size of at least $367,000 annually each that receive 15% of their budget in funding. In Tier II, there are currently 138 organizations and three organizations in the zoological division. 

Kirsten Darrington, director of the ZAP program, says she is thankful that the ZAP tax was so well defined when it was created. The result is that even through a pandemic, organizations in Salt Lake County have been able to keep their doors open with the help of funding provided by the program. 

“Because of the way our tax is structured—it’s based on sales tax and use tax collected in Salt Lake County—we were actually quite insulated and saw a 4% increase compared to 2019 revenues,” Darrington says. “We were prepared to take a huge dip. Not only did we not see that dip, but everybody got a slightly higher award than last year. It was incredible!”

Funding from the ZAP program alone does not keep organizations afloat. It does, however, release some financial burdens so programs can focus on what they were established to do— enhancing the lives of Salt Lake residents.  

One such organization is the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, a Tier I visual arts institution, celebrating its 90th birthday this year. Laura Hurtado, executive director of UMOCA, notes how lucky they are to have ZAP funding during the past year when museums across the country were shut down for months on end. 

“What the ZAP tax provides is organizational stability, which has allowed us to have an independent voice,” Hurtado says. “UMOCA is one of the only arts organizations that is not directly supported by an umbrella organization. Most of the time, the majority of them are supported by a university.” Most states do not have a specialized tax that was created with the sole purpose of supporting their arts and cultural institutions. Members of the ZAP program are grateful for the security it gives during any given year, but especially since Covid-19 hit and many similar programs have severely struggled to stay afloat. 

“The ZAP tax has allowed us to really put the artists first. They’ve allowed us some peace of mind that this amount of our operating budget will be covered and supported,” Hurtado says. “In that sense, it allows us room to take some risks in creating experimental programs that serve the community broadly.”

The zoological division is made up of only three organizations: Utah’s Hogle Zoo, Tracy Aviary, and the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium. Erica Hansen is the manager of community relations at the Hogle Zoo, which has to protect both employees and the well-being of all the animals that call the zoo their home. 

When the zoo was closed for 50 days last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, zoo management were less worried than other zoos across the country because of guaranteed funding through ZAP.  

“The ZAP program is extraordinarily helpful to the zoo,” Hansen says. “The Zoo used to borrow money in the fall and hoped to pay it off when the summer season hit. We were kind of working backwards, and ZAP allowed us to flip-flop that. Now, we have enough money from the summer to support us through the winter.”

“It has also been instrumental in a lot of the necessary upgrades and improvements that have happened at the zoo over the years,” Hansen notes.  

Utah’s ZAP program has proven that when given the chance, communities will support art and cultural institutions. Member organizations agree that other states should implement their own ZAP tax to help these vital programs stay afloat, as well as enhance the overall cultural and artistic reach of a community.

“No one really likes taxes, but the ZAP program is the one tax where residents see a direct benefit,” Hansen says. “It is absolutely a program where citizens in the community can immediately see the correlation. Not only do we have more to choose from as citizens, but these organizations find ways to say thank you and give back to the community as well.”

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