Tulsa Election 2013: Proposition 2: The "Improve Our Tulsa" sales tax

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In addition to voting for mayor next Tuesday, Tulsans will also decide whether to re-elect or replace the City Auditor, and will vote on three ballot propositions. Prop. 1 involves raising the city councilor salary to $24,000 per year. Prop. 2 and 3 are collectively called "Improve Our Tulsa" and involve nearly a billion dollars in funding for capital improvements.

Why two propositions? Because there are two different kinds of taxes involved: A sales tax (Prop. 2) and a general obligation bond issue that will be repaid by an increase in property tax rates (Prop. 3).

Prop. 2 is a 1.1% City of Tulsa sales tax capped both by money (tax ends once $563.7 million as been collected) and by time (seven years, from July 1, 2014, to no later than June 30, 2021). Here is the Prop. 2 ballot resolution establishing the parameters for the sales tax. Here is the City of Tulsa "Brown Ordinance," codified as Title 43-H, that sets out specifically how the sales tax revenues are to be spent, sets up a Sales Tax Overview Committee to oversee the completion of the projects, and establishes a complicated procedure to ensure that the public is notified of any proposed changes to the allocation of the sales tax revenues.

For most of its history the City of Tulsa funded capital improvements by general obligation bond issues (repaid by increased property tax rates), enterprise funds (e.g., water revenues paying for new water lines), and special assessments (e.g., property owners adjacent to a road would each pay a share of the cost for repaving it).

In 1966, Tulsa tripled in land area overnight, adding about 120 square miles to the north, east, and south. By 1979, it had become clear that the City could not keep up with both repair of older infrastructure and extension of infrastructure to new areas of growth. Then-Mayor Jim Inhofe proposed the first "Third-Penny" sales tax, adding a 1% tax earmarked for capital improvements to the 2% permanent tax. Voters rejected it, partly because, unlike bond issues, the money wasn't legally bound to be spent on the promised projects, and partly because voters did not want to spend tax dollars on a low-water dam on the Arkansas River.

In 1980, Inhofe tried again, this time without the low-water dam but with additional legal protections to guarantee that the money would be spent as promised. The new provisions were devised by Darven Brown in the city's legal department. Ever since then, the separate ordinance specifying projects to be funded by a Third-Penny tax, establishing an overview committee, and requiring a high-level of public notice before changes can be considered has been known in his honor as the Brown Ordinance. The Brown Ordinances have been codified as Title 43-A through 43-H -- this is the eighth such ordinance.

The current City of Tulsa sales tax rate is currently 3.167% -- a permanent 2% for general operations, and 1.167% for capital improvements approved in 2008 ("Fix Our Streets") and which expires at the end of June 2014. That 0.167% (1/6th of a cent) came into effect after Tulsa County's Four-to-Fix-The-County part 2 expired at the end of September 2011, resulting in more revenue for Tulsa's street rebuilding program without an increase in the overall sales tax rate in Tulsa.

The reason this renewal only involves 1.1% instead of 1.167% is because of an agreement between city officials and county officials to allow the county to put its own sales tax before the voters next year and reclaim the difference (0.067%) for county projects without raising the overall sales tax rate in the City of Tulsa.

Here are some of my thoughts about this measure, some favorable, some unfavorable.

Prop. 2 is set up just like the other seven capital improvement ("third penny") sales tax measures that have been approved by voters since 1980. At a top level, it's no more a blank check than those measures were. The sales tax will be spent as it comes in. None of the funds are reserved for debt service.

What is different this year are many vague line items with big dollar amounts, e.g., $46,235,000 for "Five-Year Capital Equipment Needs." That's a lot of money that can be moved around without triggering the protections of the Brown Ordinance.

I'm pleased to see funding for capital improvements related to implementation of small-area plans in areas like the Pearl District, the Northland area, and the Eugene Field (West Tulsa) area. Residents and business owners have been waiting for years, even decades for improvements that these neighborhoods need to attract new residents and businesses. Elm Creek

And yet the inclusion of funds for "acquisition" (read that as eminent domain / condemnation), and the inclination of our city leaders to ignore plans and promises if someone with enough money wants something different all combine to make me very nervous about the lack of detail setting out exactly will be done with the money.

City councilors were wise to exclude funding for improvements to the BOK Center. Tulsans already fronted the money to build the entertainment venue, and it will never generate enough additional sales tax money to pay us back for the cost of construction. It's not too much to ask those who use the venue to cover ongoing maintenance and operating costs.

At the same time, councilors included a $10,000,000 donation to another governmental entity. I love our library system and want it to continue to thrive, but the City of Tulsa has no business donating $10,000,000 of its scarce sales tax funds and giving it to the Tulsa City-County Library system, which has a dedicated and generous revenue stream, a permanent property tax. If the library board doesn't have enough money for the capital improvements it wants, the library board can ask the voters for more property tax or it can ask Tulsans to contribute toward the project. This big government-to-government donation shouldn't be a part of this sales tax package.

I wonder why wording in this package is so cagey about plans to widen Gilcrease Museum Road between Edison and Apache -- the stretch that runs in front of the museum and behind homes in Gilcrease Hills. The Brown Ordinance refers to it euphemistically as "25 W. Ave."

I'm impressed by the level of detail provided about Gilcrease Museum improvements -- 19 separate line items -- but I wonder why that level of detail wasn't the standard for the entire package. And I wonder why a city-owned museum seeking city funding for improvements presents itself on the web as a wholly owned subsidiary of a private university.

Some of the prettiest views in Tulsa are found by driving Yale between 81st and 91st. It's one of the few places we didn't slavishly follow the section line grid but instead respected the terrain. I see $31 million to widen that section, and I worry the city is going to mess that up.

I was heartened this summer to see the Woodward Park water features that I remember from my childhood running once again. But I see $4.85 million for extensive landscaping and renovating the stream at the pond, and I worry that we'll be giving the city the money and permission they need to mess it all up.

District 6 is home to 11.1% of Tulsa's population, yet the east Tulsa district has only seven specific projects: Three small bridges, three playgrounds, and Savage Park.

I'm sorry I didn't pay closer attention to this package when it was being formulated. After they removed a couple of prominent deal-killers, I thought I'd be able to support the package. Now I'm not sure.

Because the existing sales tax doesn't expire until June 30, 2014, there is time to make some changes and try again, if this effort fails.

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Graychin said:

We shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 9, 2013 11:37 PM.

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