The fiscal case: Why Vision 2025 is myopic

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Urban Tulsa has published a lengthy interview with former City of Tulsa Street Commissioner Jim Hewgley, who is a co-chairman of the Tulsa County Coalition, the opposition to the billion-dollar sales tax proposal.

The article lets Commissioner Hewgley lay out his case against the sales tax hike and to contrast the concerns about this increase with his reasons for opposing the previous arena proposals. His argument is grounded in his experience with municipal finance and his inside knowledge of convention center and arena operations (he oversaw both, and the PAC, as street commissioner).

The UT interview stands in sharp contrast to Sunday's Whirled article, which edited the opposition's remarks to fit their caricature -- same old bunch with no coherent reason for objecting. By omitting facts that were inconvenient, the Whirled's news editor provided a perfect setup for the editorial board, who condemned the opposition based on the caricature offered on the news pages. This is not the first time the two departments have exhibited such teamwork.

Jim was the author of the original third-penny sales tax for capital improvements, back in 1979. In one of the article's highlights, he explains why that tax failed the first time it was proposed and what he and other city leaders did to fix it so that it would win public support:

�In the fall of �79 Mayor Inhofe called what would have been the version of the vision conference back then. We called a summit and we had it at Gilcrease Museum. We invited everybody. We invited, specifically, all those people that were against us.�

At that time there were five people on the city commission who were Republicans. Hewgley says they were sitting ducks. That�s why they invited the heads of the Democratic and Republican parties. �We wanted to get the parties involved. We also had what was left of the Vision 2000 which had created the Greater Tulsa Council. We had these planning teams. We had a lot of everyday people and not very many vested interests. We had a broader base of people.�

The role of the commissioners was to run the meetings. �Everybody knew, including the people at the table and including us, that we were going to be the ones making the decisions, not somebody pulling our strings like is the case today.� At the end of the process he says they still had all the same people involved. The same people walked the precincts. In 1980 the third-penny sales tax was approved by voters.

�We learned that if you keep putting objectionable projects into good issues and they keep getting beat that probably the way to get them passed is to pull the projects out.� The team pulled two key projects out of the third-penny tax: the 71st Street bridge and the low-water dam. �It goes to show you if you have projects that are worth their salt, they�ll get built anyway. The point there is that we can legitimately this call this vote coming up Tulsa Project 3 just because the coliseum is in it. That�s a lesson somebody hasn�t learned.�

Please read the whole thing.


UPDATE 2016/02/13: As this article is no longer available on the web, but is only available through the Internet Archive, I'm posting it in its entirety below.

Royal Opposition
Tulsa County Coalition has a different "vision" for city
by Gretchen Collins


As we count the days down to the big, Sept. 9 vote on Vision 2025 the opposition is organizing to get the word out on why they disagree with the $885 million package. The Tulsa County Coalition is placing signs in yards urging citizens to vote no on the four-part proposal. The group believes that the timing for this kind of initiative is all wrong because of the weakened economy.

Jim Hewgley, III, former Commissioner of Streets and Public Properties for the City of Tulsa, is one of the co-chairs of the Tulsa County Coalition. He has two issues with the planned Vision 2025. "Timing-wise, this is a horrible time to have this type of an election.

"When I came into office in 1978, the city of Tulsa, we had to go immediately to a salary freeze, hiring freeze. It was in the late '70s when we had the high interest rates and high inflation. A different kind of bad economy. The people I served with the six years I was there, we would not as a group even considered having this type of an election in this kind of environment." Hewgley says that he tends to look at Vision 2025 as if he was still serving in City Hall.

Hewgley was a co-author of the third-penny sales tax. "I put that thing together with the city budget director and the head of the city development department. We lost it the first time, but won it the second. That is where I'm coming from. I've been there. I've done that. I've put these things together. I was the last commissioner to add on to the assembly center. I took that thing from plans to specs to cutting the ribbon.

"From the standpoint of knowing what's going on, there's not many people involved on the other side that bring to the table my experience." Hewgley feels that he was involved in the greatest planning effort and turnaround ever in the city's history in the form of capital improvements.

One of Hewgley's concerns is that in a 12-month fiscal year the first month was the only month the city met its sales tax projections. That resulted in salary cuts for city employees and budgets reductions. "Five out of the last six months, in real dollars, they received less than they (the city) did before. That's hard dollars. It is projected that they will be somewhere between $75 to $80 million short on the third-penny. That's not something you can go back and alter every year. Those projects are voted up front. You either make or you don't. It's not going to get any better because you can't catch up." Hewgley says that local elected officials don't have much control over the economy. They have to work with what they have.

With his background in city government and the real estate and appraisal business, Hewgley believes that our economy is actually in a depression rather than a recession. "The economy here is worse than it is nationally. Our economy is worse than most people perceive. The last thing you want to do is raise taxes. It's amazing to me that we may be the only municipality in the United States with an economy that is this bad, that is trying to raise a billion dollars in taxes and none of that money is going to go to police, fire, the city streets, or put any water in any of these pools. We're not taking care of our current needs. We're worried about, basically, the downtown chamber of commerce's pie-in-the-sky vision from whenever. Those are wants. They aren't needs."

Hewgley would like to see officials concentrate on current needs than in chasing dreams. Even with good vision and planning, he feels without proper timing the projects are all for naught.

To further complicate the city's future, Hewgley feels that our economy has yet to reach bottom. "Until this city can reach an economic bottom, then you can't go up. It's like the stock market. If we add a fourth-penny local sales tax on top of a shaky foundation it's going to put our economy in worse shape than it is.

"All the jobs that are being talked about, all the serendipity, and if any of that happens, is probably two to three years away, but the tax starts almost immediately. So what happens in the next two or three years? It's going to make the economy worse. Econ 101 says that it will make your bottom lower and it will prolong the time it's going to take to come out of it."

He recommends that we work to first dig ourselves out of the economic hole, which he defines as 12 to 15 months with black ink. Once that's done, then go on to the visioning and planning.

"Once you get it there, you need to get out of this county deal and get it back on a city basis. What we're talking about here is transferring potential city dollars to the county. That doesn't help the city at all."

He also advises doing projects in smaller bites. During the 1970s the city began Vision 2000. "We didn't try to fund the whole vision in the first year."

Hewgley's second issue with the Vision 2025 was the process it took. "Last summer they started out with a lot of good- intentioned people. They say more than a 1,000 people. I don't know. I wasn't invited to it. I know a lot of people who went to this. From afar I could just see what was going on. We had all these people in a room and we're putting all these ideas together."

One of the co-chairs of the Tulsa County Coalition, Michael Bates, was a part of the visioning process, according to Hewgley.

"This not only happened this time. It happened with the Tulsa Projects. This is the sequence: You start out with a bunch of people, go for a year, get close to what people decide they want to vote, then you get fewer and fewer people involved. You end up with the same 20 to 30 people sitting around a table making the decision. If you go back to 1997 or 2000, the same entities or people are still calling the shots.

"Basically, we've gone from a city commission form of government to a strong chamber of commerce form of government. I think the city officials are giving up control of their authority and we're basically being run by nonelected people."

When the "It's Tulsa's Time" project was proposed, Hewgley was part of the committee that opposed it. "The first time (Tulsa Project) I was in the opposition about half-way through at the request of a couple city councilors, Sam Roop and Joe Williams, who were really the leaders. As an individual I was opposed both times. Those times I was opposed because I didn't think the projects were very good."

Hewgley ran the assembly center, with Roy Saunders and (then Mayor) Jim Inhofe, in his role as street and public properties commissioner. "I know what it cost to run that building and what it would cost to run a new building. In fact, in the early '80s we had somebody propose to build one and we turned it down because of the expense of maintaining it and because we didn't have anybody to use it. We even had TU basketball then. The other reason I opposed it is because you don't use sales tax to build parking lots. They finally figured that out because they're using the Tulsa Parking Authority to build a new lot like they should have in the first place."

In 1979 when Hewgley and several others went to the newspapers to propose the third-penny sale tax they were met with skepticism. "I think even Inhofe thought we were a little nuts.

"In the fall of '79 Mayor Inhofe called what would have been the version of the vision conference back then. We called a summit and we had it at Gilcrease Museum. We invited everybody. We invited, specifically, all those people that were against us."

At that time there were five people on the city commission who were Republicans. Hewgley says they were sitting ducks. That's why they invited the heads of the Democratic and Republican parties. "We wanted to get the parties involved. We also had what was left of the Vision 2000 which had created the Greater Tulsa Council. We had these planning teams. We had a lot of everyday people and not very many vested interests. We had a broader base of people."

The role of the commissioners was to run the meetings. "Everybody knew, including the people at the table and including us, that we were going to be the ones making the decisions, not somebody pulling our strings like is the case today." At the end of the process he says they still had all the same people involved. The same people walked the precincts. In 1980 the third-penny sales tax was approved by voters.

"We learned that if you keep putting objectionable projects into good issues and they keep getting beat that probably the way to get them passed is to pull the projects out." The team pulled two key projects out of the third-penny tax: the 71st Street bridge and the low-water dam. "It goes to show you if you have projects that are worth their salt, they'll get built anyway. The point there is that we can legitimately this call this vote coming up Tulsa Project 3 just because the coliseum is in it. That's a lesson somebody hasn't learned."

Part of the problem now as Hewgley sees it is the current form of government doesn't allow the planning teams and districts. "What I call this difference is 'inside out versus outside in.' We were able to do what we did in 1980 by working outside in. The people were out there. They didn't have vested interests. Their vested interest was their city not all these little groups. They all came together including Republicans and Democrats.

Today you have what I call the 'inside out.' You have the same 25 or 30 people downtown that really don't know what's going on out south of Utica Square. This is a big town. There's a lot more things going on out there. To think that all the wisdom is granted in the downtown Tulsa area when you have this whole city out there is just ludicrous."

He feels the visioning process leadership team would have been better had it included the heads of the Republican and Democratic parties. "It's unbelievable to me. Those are people who can really help you get something done. Many times they end up having the same people down there because if they have other people down there, they're liable to hear something they don't want to hear."

A third peripheral issue for Hewgley is that he doesn't have a great deal of confidence in the city transferring money to the county. "They have very few rules. They have a real loose organization compared to what the city government has.

"As far as projects, I haven't paid that much attention to them because they really don't mean that much."

When the economy improves Hewgley feels that might be different, but warns elected officials to work from the outside in. "I'd like to see them do a true planning process which could involve going back to some of the methods we had in place in the '70s and '80s, some of the things the Vision 2000 had." That included the Greater Tulsa Council, area planning teams, all run through the planning commission.

"We don't really have a capital improvements process anymore. If they continue to run this thing like they've been running it, the chances are a lot less. They could really help themselves if they involve the public more. Tulsa Now was left out. They were left by the wayside. On their website they're taking a neutral position."

Many of the projects proposed, according to Hewgley, should be a part of the third-penny sales tax. "There's no reason to have a fourth penny. This is what the third penny is for. If you get individual projects that are just too big, take up too much money, those are projects that should have individual bond issues. When we went to the third-penny sales tax, that wasn't a panacea. The plan was to use the third-penny sales tax and bond issues. The city has become too reliant on the third-penny sales tax for capital improvements and they gotten away from the approach that we tried to do. There's a lot of ways to build capital projects. The idea was to use them all.

"Right now it seems that everybody wants to focus on the sales tax which of all the taxes is the most regressive."

There are five co-chairmans in the Tulsa County Coalition: Jack Gordon, Democrat and immediate past county assessor; Tony Solow of Solow Glass; Jack Henderson, former chairman of the local NAACP; Michael Bates, a software engineer; and Hewgley who is a sales associate with Prudential Detrick Realty.

"I've been there," Hewgley says of his tenure in City Hall, "and I've see how you can have a big group of people and tell them that they're important, but at the end they're really not. There's already a design in. In the end you still have the same group of people doing the same thing."

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 31, 2003 11:26 PM.

A billion dollars but nothing to fix I-44 was the previous entry in this blog.

Off the grid is the next entry in this blog.

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