My "no" vote is pro-Tulsa


I received an e-mail from someone who supported my campaign for City Council last year. He expressed confusion that I would aggressively oppose a program he considers good for Tulsa. I sent him a lengthy reply, and I thought it would be worth posting here:

Thank you for writing and expressing your concern. I can understand why you might be confused at my opposition, as the Tulsa World and John Erling have been portraying anyone opposed to this package as thoughtless, knee-jerk naysayers. Both media sources have taken long, thoughtful interviews and extracted soundbites that reinforce their caricature of the opposition. I want to assure you, particularly since you supported my campaign for City Council last year, that my opposition to this sales tax increase is not motivated by petty concerns or personal ambition, but by a desire to see Tulsa move forward with wisdom and true vision.

Like you, I want good things for Tulsa. There are things that Tulsa needs to be doing now to lay a good foundation for the future. While many people believe we just need to do something, I believe we need to do something effective. That was at the heart of my campaign for City Council.

I have been involved in this vision process since before it officially began, serving as a coordinator for TulsaNow, as a facilitator at the Mayor's Vision Summit, and on the Downtowns and Neighborhoods task force of the Dialog / Visioning process.

I have been involved in studying issues of economic and urban development for many years, looking at what has brought real success and real vitality to cities around the world. Jane Jacobs' landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities; Roberta Brandes Gratz's Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown; and former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist's The Wealth of Cities, are among the books that have influenced my thinking, along with the work of academics like Professor Heywood Sanders, a leading expert on the convention industry, journalists like Joel Kotkin, an expert on the impact of the digital economy on competition between cities, and city planners like Vicki Noteis, who led a truly grass-roots process of vision building in Kansas City in the mid-'90s, a process that continues today.

Along with many other Tulsans, I tried to advance those ideas through this process. Unfortunately, the final package was not driven by grass-roots priorities or by the advice of the many experts who have visited Tulsa and given their counsel, but by the same interest groups who put together the 1997 and 2000 packages.

While there are some good ideas in this package -- projects that should be added to our capital improvements "wish list" -- very little is truly visionary, and the bulk of the money will be spent on economic development strategies which will not position Tulsa for future success. As to the specifics:

Boeing: Spending over $1 million per job (including Tulsa's $350 million and the state's rumored $650 million in Boeing incentives) is too high a price to pay, and it only makes Tulsa even more dependent on the perilous state of the commercial aviation industry. Boeing manufacturing jobs won't employ the thousands of high-tech workers displaced by problems at WorldCom and Williams. Tulsa should be diversifying its economy. It makes more sense to leave that money in the hands of Tulsa's taxpayers, for the free market to allocate, rather than letting politicians take it and redistribute it to one company with good lobbyists.

American: I support the Utility Board's recent decision to cut water rates for large industrial users out of city, and to build a sewer line that will serve American and other customers along North Mingo Road. These incentives do help American specifically, but other businesses can also take advantage of them. The sewer line will pay for itself by connecting more paying customers to our system. I cannot condone direct payments to a favored company, which is what the $22.3 million on the ballot amounts to. AA has committed 10 times that amount for naming rights for arenas in Dallas and Miami.

Arena / convention center / higher education: I lobbied hard to get this package broken into logical pieces, but supporters of an arena were determined to tie their pet project to more popular items. Some of the higher education proposals seem worthwhile, but the bulk of this tax will go to fund a new downtown arena and convention center expansion. I have read the feasibility study prepared by Convention, Sports, and Leisure cover-to-cover, and it reveals that better facilities will not draw lucrative national conventions to Tulsa, nor will it draw many major concerts. An expanded downtown convention center would continue to lose $2 million a year, money that comes out of the city's already-tight general fund. CSL projected the arena to make money, but the projection is grounded in selling an unrealistic number of luxury boxes and premium seats for minor league sports. Beyond the economic flaws, I cannot justify taking tax dollars from everyone to build entertainment facilities for a few. Entertainment should be left to the free market.

If the higher ed proposals truly have merit, we should work aggressively for state funding, then if necessary supplement that funding with a bond issue targeted to completing those facilities.

Community infrastructure: Many good projects in this package, but none urgent enough to deserve a tax increase now. In 2004, the City will seek a new general obligation bond issue to replace expiring bonds. In 2006, we will renew the 3rd penny and "4 to Fix the County". These are opportunities to fund worthy projects without raising taxes.

Beyond the pros and cons of the ballot items, I do not believe it makes economic sense to raise taxes now, when the Federal government is trying to stimulate the economy by cutting taxes. In fact, it is cruel to raise the cost of living on the thousands of unemployed and underemployed Tulsans who are working two and three jobs to make ends meet.

What should we be doing? Link up with OKC to get state government to reform our tax structure and workers' comp laws, to make Oklahoma a better place to start and grow a business. At the city level, implement the performance review recommendations to make city government more effective and efficient, so that Tulsa will be a better place to live and do business. Aggressively work with local business to find jobs for displaced high-tech workers -- they are our city's intellectual capital, and we are losing them to Texas and elsewhere, because they can't find work here. Work with private funding sources to develop small-business incubators -- encourage innovative ideas that start small but have the potential to grow big. Continue the long-term program to encourage new residential development downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods. And finally, develop a comprehensive long-term strategic plan -- not just a list of projects, but addressing the challenges of the next 25 years -- Kansas City has a successful model that we could follow. None of this requires much in the way of public money, and all of it could be done without a tax increase.

There are many good people who sincerely believe that this sales tax program is a good plan. I disagree, but I respect their sincere good intentions for our city. I hope that this message conveys that those who oppose the sales tax are also sincere in desiring the best for our city.


Michael Bates

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 5, 2003 12:26 AM.

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