Re-Vision foolishness: Where are the BoEs?

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The Tulsa City Council is rushing to get the new "Vision" tax on the ballot for April. The current Vision 2025 tax doesn't expire until the end of the year, so they could wait until June (the city, state, and federal primary date) or November (city, state, and federal general election) and avoid the cost of a special election. Why don't they? I suspect they think the new tax's chances are better at a low-turnout stealth election, and they may want to lock in a share of the expiring Vision 2025 tax before the county commissioners beat them to it.

Family obligations prevented me from attending any of the three public meetings this week, but I've started to look through the details of the items in the package draft. As currently structured, the proposal seems likely to fail, and fail badly. Friends who are normally gung-ho for any capital improvement proposal are giving Re-Vision a thumbs-down.

Here is the draft City of Tulsa vision proposal, as of January 7, 2016. Here is the list of submitted proposals for the City of Tulsa vision package, with links to PDFs of the submitted application, YouTube videos of the presentations before the City Council, and
PowerPoint presentations.

Not only is the proposed package far from a cohesive vision, but the Basis of Estimate (BoE) -- the details that justify the amount budgeted -- for each item is dreadfully inadequate. There's reason to believe that the estimates are way off, which means that some ideas that could be funded won't be, and other ideas will be promised (like the low-water dams in Vision 2025, or the juvenile justice facililty in Four to Fix the County) and attract votes, but won't have any possibility of being built without going back to the voters for more money.

I've got a lot to thoughts to share, but I'll limit myself in this entry to a look at two specific projects: The BMX Headquarters and the Air National Guard simulator building.

The PowerPoint presentation for the BMX Headquarters proposal makes the following claims on slide 12:

Estimated Project Cost: $45 million

5-year Economic Impact: $10,704,049
5-year Anticipated Total of Participant Attendance: 112,653
5-year Anticipated Total of Spectator Attendance: 85,831
5-year Anticipated Room Nights for Tulsa: 16,910

No information was provided to back up those numbers, but even if we assume they're accurate, that's a really rotten return on investment: Spend $45 million to get $10.7 million. In the draft package, only $18 million is allocated, but that still puts the city in the hole. There's no explanation for the $18 million or where the other $29 million will come from. Of course, that $10.7 million "impact" only benefits the taxpayers by the extra sales tax. That means we'll be spending $18 million to see maybe $300,000 in extra money for the basic functions of city government.

Where they wanted to put it is even worse: According to the same PowerPoint, they wanted to pave over Helmerich Park, the part that isn't already is being sold by a city trust for a retail development. That also ups the real cost to Tulsa taxpayers -- we'd be giving away parkland that could sell for millions of dollars.

BMX_Helmerich_Park.png

I'm now told that the proponents have since withdrawn that idea, and they now want to put the BMX facility on the site of Driller Stadium. That's problematic in a different way: Putting a city-financed facility on county-owned land. Given the ongoing friction between the City of Tulsa and Tulsa County, I doubt the county would give the Driller Stadium site away for free. Would the City have to purchase or lease that land?

Cities shouldn't be building headquarters for any private organization, but even if you think it might be a good idea under certain circumstances, you have to admit that this particular idea is too half-baked to be ready for the ballot.

The Air National Guard line item is $9.4 million to build a 119,000 sq. ft. facility to maybe, perhaps, someday, house four F-16 simulators and maybe, perhaps, someday, house four F-35 simulators. There isn't much detail in the submitted proposal; most of what I've been able to learn about the proposal is in the YouTube video of ANG Col. Tray Siegfried presenting the idea to the council.

Siegfried's discussion seemed to be mostly speculation and handwaving. He claimed, in essence, that if the government funds the F-16 simulators, then the building would ensure that they have a place to go, increasing the odds that the DoD would locate simulators here. He said that there had been $24.7 million in the House's version of last year's NDAA, but it didn't survive the Senate. (I looked but was unable to find any reference to F-16 simulators in any of the NDAA versions; perhaps Col. Siegfried could provide bill number, section, and line item to back up his claims.)

Siegfried offered no justification for the proposed size of the building, which is larger than FlightSafety's former building at 2700 N Hemlock Circle. If I recall correctly, the old FlightSafety building could house up to 14 full flight simulators in its 30,000 sq. ft. main highbay.

An F-16 or F-35 simulator is likely to have an even smaller footprint, as simulators for fighter aircraft usually consist of a cockpit on small, fixed base, surrounded by a domed visual display, with an instructor station located nearby. 50 by 40 feet would be a typical space allocation for such a device, and in recent years visual domes have been getting smaller, partly because of pressure from the DoD. Their ideal simulator is small enough and quiet enough (no motion base, no hydraulic pumps) to fit in an ordinary office environment, with ordinary power and ventilation needs. They want something small enough to pack into a semi trailer for shipment to where it's needed most urgently for training. Surely you could fit four F-16 simulators, plus briefing rooms and offices, into a 20,000 sq. ft. building.

From personal observation, it seems unlikely that an Air National Guard base would receive brand new top-of-the-line simulators. The reality is that active-duty bases get the new stuff; National Guard and Reserve bases get hand-me-downs and lower-fidelity devices. If simulators were to come to Tulsa, they'd likely be what are called "unit training devices" -- same small cockpit on a fixed base, but with a large flat screen in front instead of a dome for the out-the-window display. Without the dome, these UTDs can fit in an even smaller space and are much less demanding on the building's power and cooling systems.

I can appreciate Siegfried's desire to have simulators available for his squadron. Simulators, particularly if they're networked together, allow pilots to rehearse missions and emergency situations -- impossible in the actual aircraft. I'm sure it's a bother to ship his pilots off to an active-duty base to get time in the sims.

But this idea of erecting a building in hopes of getting simulators at a later date is based on too many iffy propositions to warrant inclusion in this tax package. What basis is there to hope for additional funds to build the simulators? What assurances do we have that Tulsa would get any of them? What types of simulators are we likely to get, and what are the facilities requirements for each? Where is the justification for a 119,000 sq. ft. building? Does the building need special reinforced concrete pads to support motion bases, with mezzanines and access ramps, or will it need a raised floor?

I'd like to hope that the City Council had thoroughly vetted this request, but the fact that they have accepted the original proposal of $9.4 million suggests that they simply accepted what they were told.

If I were a cynic, I might believe that the City Council had no interest in whether these projects were feasible or appropriately budgeted. I might believe, were I a cynic, that these items were included just to get a few more hundred voters to the polls in the mood to vote yes on everything.

The better path would be for the Council to whittle down the list and propose a shorter-term (five years, max), pay-as-you-go (no "advanced funding" line item for interest and bond fees) sales tax that funded only those items that were of general public benefit and had been thoroughly vetted for feasibility and an accurate estimate of cost.

Corrected the revised amount for the BMX Headquarters proposal, which I had mis-copied from the City Council website. It's an even worse deal than I thought -- $18 million, not $16 million.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on January 13, 2016 11:13 PM.

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