Tulsa City Hall: May 2006 Archives

An edited version of this piece was published in the May 24, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web July 3, 2010.

Flunking the Yellow Pages Test

By Michael D. Bates

When he was Mayor of Indianapolis, Stephen Goldsmith had a simple test for whether city government ought to be performing a service or whether it should be left to the private sector:

"Look at the city's yellow pages. If the phone book lists three companies that provide a certain service, the city probably should not be in that business, at least not exclusively."

Using the Yellow Pages Test, Goldsmith cut hundreds of millions in city expenses, money that was then spent on city improvements. City government focused on the tasks that only it could provide. Dozens of functions were completely turned over to the private sector or contracted out. In order to keep a task in-house, a city department had to compete successfully on cost and quality with private providers.

Goldsmith's example is more often applauded than followed. Oklahoma politicians have been all too anxious to get into businesses like entertainment, resorts, and commercial aviation, providing public funds to help private enterprises that are in competition with other private businesses.

These interventions are always justified as essential to the public good, but instead they always seem to drain money away from the basic functions of government.

On Sunday, May 14, the Oklahoman reported that the $27 million in transferable state tax credits used to finance Great Plains Airlines was coming out of fuel taxes, money that would otherwise go to replace

Oklahoma's roads and bridges. Rather than fund the rehabilitation of 90 bridges or the resurfacing of 135 miles of highway, Oklahomans are paying for a failed airline that never got close to its stated purpose of providing air service between Oklahoma and the coasts.

(Don't go looking for that story in the Tulsa World, whose parent company was a major investor in the failed airline.)

With that lesson on the front page of the state's biggest paper, you'd think it would deter the Legislature from making the same mistake again.

Instead, there's a push to approve $30 million in state tax credits for redevelopment of Grand Lake's Shangri-La resort. Earlier this session, a bill containing the credits stalled in the House, but they may be inserted into the massive budget and tax cut bill.

There's no question that Shangri-La is not much of an attraction any more. My wife and I spent our fifth anniversary there 12 years ago and were so bored with the place we left early to visit Buffalo Ranch and the Precious Moments Chapel.

Backers of the plan claim we need a revived Shangri-La to compete with convention centers and resorts in other states. It seems more likely that it would compete for convention business with city-owned convention centers in Oklahoma City and Tulsa and with tribal and privately-owned facilities like the Cherokee Resort in Catoosa and Tulsa's Renaissance Hotel.

Left to its own devices, the free market would be unlikely to pick the southern end of Monkey Island for a major resort. Shangri-La is nearly as inaccessible as its literary namesake. It's over 80 miles away from the nearest commercial airport, and there's only one two-lane highway leading to it.

By now, GOP leadership in the House should have poured cold water on the plan, but they have remained silent. Perhaps they're concerned about protecting the bill's sponsor, Doug Cox, a freshman representative from Grove serving a traditionally Democratic district.

House Republicans should be more concerned about protecting a reputation for common sense and integrity. That will do more in the long run for maintaining their majority and building popular support for their platform than meddling in an area that should be left to the private sector.

Closer to home, there was much ado last week about the city's meddling in the competition for local entertainment dollars.

Last Thursday night, the City Council authorized payments to the Tulsa Oilers hockey team, the Tulsa Talons arena football team, and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).

Former Mayor Bill LaFortune changed the formula for splitting concession revenues with the Oilers and Talons. As a result, each team will receive more money back in concession revenues than they paid in rent, about $20,000 more for the Talons and $50,000 more for the Oilers.

The PRCA and Professional Bull Riders (PBR) are each getting a $50,000 sponsorship payment from the city.

During Thursday's Council meeting, Council Chairman "Landslide" Bill Martinson called the payments corporate welfare and said they were offensive. That's ironic: The same Bill Martinson now fretting about $100,000 was just a few months ago pushing to have the city bail out Bank of Oklahoma to the tune of $7.5 million for the bad loan it made to Great Plains Airlines, a loan for which the city has no liability.

The Tulsa World's Friday front-page graphic painted a distorted picture of the payments to the teams by omitting the money the city received in concession revenues from the events. Between rent and concessions, the city made $187,952 from Oilers' games and $63,409 from Talons' games. That's after paying the teams their share of concession cash.

The real question, one the monopoly daily paper doesn't want to address, is whether the city makes enough money from these events to cover the expense of operating the facility. Conventions and major concerts might bring in a significant number of out-of-town visitors, so that theoretically, the increased sales tax revenue from those visitors would offset any operating loss.

But the Talons and Oilers draw mainly from the local area, so the revenues need to be enough by themselves to cover the expenses. Otherwise, we'd be better off keeping the place closed.

LaFortune was quoted in the World as defending the deals on the grounds of quality of life: "Professional teams in our city are absolutely critical to our city's economic well-being."

Minor league sports are really just one entertainment option among many in this city, competing with night clubs, restaurants, and movie theaters for the disposable income of Tulsa residents. There's no more justification for subsidizing them than there would be for a city-funded Western Swing band. (Actually, the latter would be far more likely to bring in outside tourist dollars.)

There's something else ironic about Martinson's fussing about corporate welfare. The amounts in question are three orders of magnitude smaller than what we're spending on the new arena - around 100 grand compared to $200 million. Talk about straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel!

Ordinarily, a private business has to pay for a place to conduct business. You might buy or lease an existing building, or you might build something new, but the cost of a place is part of the cost of doing business. If you're leasing, your rent is paying for the landlord's cost of building and maintaining the place.

But in all the financial projections for the new arena, the cost of construction is left out of the picture. If we exceed all reasonable expectations, we may cover the costs of operation, but there's no expectation that taxpayers should recover the funds we spent to build a place for sports teams and musical acts to make money. If anything is corporate welfare, that surely is.

Taxpayers don't build movie theaters or dance halls, and there's no reason we should be funding a location for entertainment options that compete with those private businesses.

The charter review commission that Bill LaFortune put in place last December following the failure of Tulsans for Better Government's supercouncilor initiative petition is nearing its scheduled conclusion. I spoke at last Friday's meeting at the invitation of Co-Chairman Ken Levit. This week's Urban Tulsa Weekly has my report on the meeting and the kind of recommendations the Citizens' Commission on City Government is likely to make. (For a complete picture, don't miss Bobby's entry at Tulsa Topics, which contains audio of my presentation and TU Professor Gary Allison's remarks.)

My column also includes an update on SB 1324, the bill that would interfere with local government control of Board of Adjustment appeals and enforcement of design rules in historic preservation and neighborhood conservation districts.

(By the way, on Wednesday the State Senate officially rejected House amendments to SB 1324 and requested a conference committee. Conferees have yet to be named.)

This issue also includes a Ginger Shepherd profile of new District 7 Councilor John Eagleton. (Previous issues featured District 2 Councilor Rick Westcott and District 4 Councilor Maria Barnes.)

Eagleton tells how he came up with the idea that would use a south Tulsa toll bridge and a nearby TIF district to fund improvements to the roads leading to the bridge and to cover the shortfall in the BOk Center arena, while giving BOk the financing for the bridge in exchange for dropping their lawsuit for the $7.5 million owed by Great Plains Airlines and guaranteed by the Tulsa Airport Improvements Trust:

He said he came up with the idea while sitting in a Creek County Court for a docket call. The docket that day was six to seven pages long, and he was bored while he waited to be called. He counted the ceiling tiles, his mind was wondering and then he "was hit like a bolt of lighting" with the idea.

Whatever the merits of Eagleton's idea, that's certainly a more constructive and acceptable way to beat boredom in a Creek County courtroom than other methods that have made the news.

This issue also includes coverage of Mayfest (also here), a continuation of the summer events guide, and a ballot for the 2006 Absolute Best of Tulsa awards.

This week's column covers three topics: (1) An update on the status of HB 2559 and SB 1324, the bills in the Oklahoma legislature which would dictate local zoning and land use policy from Oklahoma City; (2) Mayor Taylor's hiring of former City Councilor Susan Neal; (3) the topics under serious consideration by the Citizens' Commission on City Government, including non-partisan city elections.

Since the story was filed, I've learned that HB 2559 is dead, but SB 1324 has gone to conference committee and is still very much alive. I spoke yesterday to State Sen. Brian Crain, the Senate author of the bill, who believes that the provision requiring Board of Adjustment appeals to go directly to District Court is merely a clarification of existing law. He directed me to 11 O. S. 44-110. I mentioned that Tulsa's City Attorney office had said that Tulsa could change its zoning ordinance to allow certain BoA decisions to be appealed to the City Council, and that such a change was discussed by the previous City Council.

The other part of the bill amends 11 O. S. 44-104, and it appears to put design guidelines (such as those in use in historic preservation and neighborhood conservation districts) in the control of the Board of Adjustment, rather than special design review boards:

[The Board of Adjustment shall have power to] Hear and decide proposals for accessory elements associated with an allowed building use, where appropriate general performance and design standards have been established which promote greater economic value and provide a harmonious relationship with adjoining land uses by ordinance or by administrative rule or regulation. Such proposals and performance or design standards may include, but are not limited to, such accessory elements as sound, building material, runoff, lighting, visual screening, landscaping and vehicular considerations;

I understood Crain to say that that language was intended to give cities the flexibility to enable infill development, and that it was crafted with the help of INCOG staff. Crain said he was open to suggestions for clearer language.

While I am sure of Sen. Crain's good intentions, I don't see an urgent need for either provision. Unless cities are complaining that they are unable under present law to add flexibility to the zoning code, leave well enough alone. While Tulsa does need infill development, local government is best suited to design rules that will balance competing concerns and ensure that the investments of homeowners and developers alike are respected.

Your calls to state representatives and state senators are still needed to stop this bill, which I believe would set a precedent for further legislative interference in local zoning.

On the matter of the City Charter, I'll be speaking Friday afternoon at the invitation of the Citizens' Commission, mainly to address the issue of partisanship. Here's my column on the idea of multi-partisan elections, an alternative to the non-partisan concept. I hope also to get in a plug for Instant Runoff Voting, which we need already, but we'll need it more if we move toward any system in which primaries are eliminated.

An edited version of this piece was published on May 10, 2006, in Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web, with hyperlinks to related articles, on August 18, 2010.

We're now a month past the city election, and it's time to follow up on a few stories that we've been watching.

* * *

First, let's look to the State Legislature, where Tulsa's development lobby has taken its battle to regain total control of zoning and land use planning. HB 2559 has been sent to conference committee. The bill, sponsored by three Tulsa legislators (State Reps. Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel, and State Sen. Brian Crain), would interfere with local control of the zoning process, requiring appeals to Board of Adjustment (BoA) decisions to go directly to District Court and making it easier to remove lots from historic preservation districts (and ensuring the eventual erosion of these districts to non-existence).

The companion Senate bill, SB 1324, is awaiting the Senate's consideration of House amendments, but it appears to be on hold while HB 2559 is in conference. SB 1324 includes a section that would give the BoA oversight of design guidelines, which would affect historic preservation districts and Oklahoma City's neighborhood conservation districts. Combined with the BoA appeal requirement, it would make it tougher to enforce these zoning provisions which aim to preserve the character of a neighborhood. It's likely that this provision will be included in the conference negotiations over HB 2559.

Legislators have gotten an earful about these bills from neighborhood association leaders and historic preservation activists over the last two weeks. We'll see if the voice of the people is enough to overcome the loud voice of campaign contributions from builders' PACs and individual developers. One encouraging sign: State Sen. Randy Brogdon, a former Mayor of Owasso, and one of the most principled members of the State Legislature, has come out in opposition to the bill.

The local monopoly daily weighed in with an editorial on the bill, predictably siding against local control of land use decisions. The editorial set forth a false alternative: Do you want zoning decisions made by professionals or by politicians?

In fact, the BoA is not made up of professionals. It consists of five private citizens, nominated to the board by the Mayor for three-year terms and confirmed by the City Council.

And although much of what the Board does is cut-and-dried, there is a strong subjective element to the approval of special exceptions, where the Board's role is more legislative, rather than "quasi-judicial." Neighborhood compatibility is involved in special exceptions, and it would be reasonable to provide a level of review that doesn't require the expense of hiring an attorney.

Whatever the merits of changing the BoA appeals process or changing historic preservation rules, the issue should be debated and decided locally - a point the World's editorial avoids. The bottom line is that the World and the development lobby don't want land-use decisions made by a body that they don't control.
Keep calling the State Capitol. Our legislators need to get the message - keep local issues under local control.

* * *

Mayor Kathy Taylor is being lauded for reaching across partisan lines to hire former City Councilor Susan Neal, a Republican, to serve on her staff as a legislative and education liaison. Neal and former Council colleague Tom Baker were Taylor's first two permanent hires.

The reality is that, when it comes to local political factions, Neal's hiring doesn't cross any ideological boundaries at all. Neal is very much a part of the Midtown Money Belt faction that crosses national party lines and includes Taylor, Baker, and former Mayor Susan Savage. She and Baker were the Tulsa World editorial board's favorite councilors. The pair was nicknamed Bakerneal by their colleagues for voting in lockstep.

Although she worked for a Republican congressman a decade and a half ago, Neal is considered a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by most local activists. As a councilor, she would show up at the annual Tulsa County Republican Convention just long enough to wave when the elected officials were introduced.

I'm only aware of one occasion where Neal took a discernibly Republican position on an issue: She voted twice against allowing more city employees to unionize. Then again, that's a position many Money Belt Democrats share, including Mayor Taylor and former Mayor Savage.

Her appointment as a legislative liaison is ironic. In choosing a liaison, you want someone who has the respect of those you're going to be lobbying.

Neal's ties to Tulsa's mostly-Republican legislative delegation are rather tenuous. When Republican elected officials gathered in late 2004 to announce their opposition to the recall of two Republican city councilors, Neal was nowhere in sight. Of the local delegation, she's known to have a good rapport with only Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel, both of whom sponsored the aforementioned HB 2559, working to keep a reform-minded City Council from exercising local control over zoning.

Neal isn't Taylor's worst choice for a liaison to the City Council - that would have been Baker - but she comes close. She wasn't highly regarded by the reformers on the Council, a perspective that now holds a solid majority on that body. During Council debates, Neal would try her colleagues' patience with her lengthy soliloquies on the agony of decision-making, complete with sighs and anguished facial expressions. Her wilderness wanderings invariably led her to whatever position the Tulsa World editorial board favored.

I received a good deal of flack for endorsing Bill LaFortune against Taylor in the general, after working for his defeat in the Republican primary. I was accused (ironically, by someone married to a member of Taylor's campaign staff and transition team) of selling out for a chance at an unpaid appointment to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC); others said I was acting out of pure Republican partisanship.

I wrote at the time that a chastened LaFortune was Tulsa's best chance for City Hall reform. The primary result opened LaFortune's eyes. The voices he had dismissed as a fringe group turned out to represent a broad, bipartisan, and geographically diverse coalition that prevailed in most of the contested council seats and, if it hadn't been for Randi Miller's spoiler role, would have taken him out in the primary.

Taylor obviously hasn't had that wake-up call yet. Taylor's choice of Baker and Neal confirms my suspicion that she will do nothing to challenge the City Hall status quo. If you were a Medlock or McCorkell voter, if you're from north, east, or west Tulsa, she won't be listening to you. She appears to be encasing herself in a Money Belt bubble, where she can remain uncontaminated by the concerns and opinions of the rest of Tulsa.

I'd be happy to be proven wrong. Taylor's appointments to expired terms on the TMAPC, the BoA, and Tulsa Airport Authority will be very telling.

* * *

Speaking of partisanship and city government, this Friday I will be speaking about non-partisan municipal elections to the Citizens' Commission on City Government, a body appointed by former Mayor LaFortune to study changing the City Charter. I'll be presenting the alternative of multi-partisan elections, which I described in this space back in April, and advocating for instant runoff voting, which I wrote about in March.

The Commission is meeting at the TCC West Campus (a strange venue - it's not within Tulsa's City Limits) on Friday at 1:30pm.

I've been hearing that the two recommendations most likely to emerge from the commission are non-partisan elections and appointment of the City Auditor. The commission has been told in no uncertain terms that the addition of any number of at-large or supercouncilor seats would provoke a Federal Voting Rights Act case because of the diluting effect such a move would have on minority representation. (Attorney Greg Bledsoe, representing the group opposing at-large councilors, set out the legal issues in great detail. You can read his testimony in detail at tulsansdefendingdemocracy.com.)

Non-partisan elections would deprive voters of useful information in the voting booth. My alternative, spelled out in full in my April 6th column, would put all candidates on a single ballot, giving every voter a choice of every candidate. But rather than concealing the reality of factions and interest groups by stripping the ballot of any partisan labels, my idea would allow both national party labels and the names of locally-based political action committees to appear on the ballot, so that voters would know how the candidates line up on local issues.

Instead of pretending that these divisions don't exist, let's make them apparent.

One issue the commission should examine, but hasn't: Moving city elections to the fall of odd-numbered years. It would give candidates more daylight hours and better campaigning weather, and it would give new officials a full six months to find their way around City Hall before the next budget cycle begins.

The City Auditor's post has worked well for decades as an elected post. If it must be changed to an appointed position, let the Council make the appointment, not the Mayor. Above all, the Auditor should act as a check and a watchdog over the executive branch of government, which the Mayor heads. Many Tulsans were uneasy enough with the idea of a mayoral staffer running for City Auditor this year; imagine if Bill LaFortune had been able to appoint Michael Willis directly to the post.

The commission will wrap up work and issue their recommendations in June. I doubt the new Council will do anything with them right away, given the other issues on their plate. At the earliest, the commission's ideas may be given a hearing as part of the usual charter review cycle which will begin in the summer of 2007.

Third-penny roundup

| | Comments (2)

Tomorrow Tulsa votes on a new one-percent sales tax, a tax that will stay in effect until it raises nearly half a billion dollars. I'll be on KFAQ, starting at 6:40 (a bit later than normal) for my usual Tuesday slot, then joining a panel discussion about the tax after the 7am news.

Here's a link to a 19-page PDF with the official ordinance containing the approved lists of projects.

I haven't had much to say about this one. My preferred solution -- 18 month extension to finish unfunded 2001 sales tax projects -- was passed over by a rush of deal-making by the last council. There are plenty of needed projects, but there's a lot that doesn't seem worthy of the third-penny, which was originally envisioned as a tax devoted to long-term capital improvements -- not computer equipment, not "rolling stock" (e.g., police cars), but things with a life span of 20 years or better.

If it failed, it wouldn't be the end of the world. The new mayor and council could put together a new package focused more on necessities, less on frills. It would mean a couple of months with a lower sales tax rate, rather than a seamless continuation of the same rate.

In the course of putting together my own roundup, I came across Steve Roemerman's comprehensive aggregation of third-penny sales tax stories, which he started collecting back in September.

Here's what other Tulsa bloggers are saying about the issue. I won't duplicate Steve's excellent effort, but I will pull out a few quotes of note.

Mad Okie says send it back to the drawing board:

If this proposal was about infrastructure and roads I wouldnt even be typing this, but its about repairing pools we cant afford to fill, improving roads & parking for an arena we cant afford to build, its for repairing a roof on a convention center that Vision 2025 is supposed to fix.

Voting this penny down will not destroy Tulsa, but it will show that you are not a sheep willing to be herded around by your city masters.

Bobby Holt
has a problem with the priorities, not with the penny:

I'm not against the 3rd Penny Sales Tax. My problem is the priorities that management, our elected officials, set. Every capital project can be categorized as either "needs" or "wants" and the current capital project listing for this 3rd penny is full of both. Basic needs of a city, public safety, roads, water, and sewer should take the largest chunk out of this tax. If not, our elected officials have their priorities askew.... So once again Tulsans have what appears to be a quickly thrown together package with a hefty list of "wants" attached to it.

Red Bug of Tulsa Chiggers writes:

Somehow over the decades this penny has been hijacked in usual fashion by those not so concerned with our crumbling infrastructure, but for a hodgepodge of porcine projects.

Our streets are a disgrace. Anyone with any reasoning knows that we need a major emphasis on improving streets. Yet this third penny gives only a token amount to street projects. My problem is not with the third penny so much as the priority of projects and what the projects themselves represent.

If, by some miracle, this tax is defeated, it only means we are telling politicans we don't like this plan, roll up your sleeves and give us another practical choice.

Dan Paden wonders how we afforded streets and police and fire protection and water service thirty-some years ago on a sales tax rate half of today's:

Oh, I remember the bad old days, back when I was a kid. Sales tax was only about four and a half cents on the dollar. Of course, we had no police, no fire department. No streets. No safety and no security. No city-county health department.

What? You don't believe that? But if we had all that, back then, at about four cents on the dollar less than we are paying now, what's all the extra money been for?

Buying votes, of course. If you're as sick of it as I am, then I encourage you to vote no on the Third Penny as well.

MeeCiteeWurkor hints at his preference.

Dave Schuttler reminds us that we still have a choice.

Regarding the second item on the ballot, which would add temporary hangars for the American Airlines maintenance base, Bobby has a link to a Daily Oklahoman article about an aerospace analyst who calls attention to the changing aircraft maintenance business and the risks of cities investing in that industry:

American Airlines is the only domestic airline that continues to do its own aircraft maintenance and is expanding operations to take on the work of other airlines. In the last few years, several U.S. airlines have been liquidated or filed for bankruptcy. Other airlines have continued to send their maintenance and repair work to outside contractors in the United States and around the world.

"This is a high-risk business," said William Alderman, president of Alderman & Co., a Connecticut-based aerospace and defense investment banking company. "Projects like this where state and local governments have invested money have been a complete disaster."

Alderman pointed to the United Airlines maintenance center in Indianapolis, where the state invested millions to get the center, only to have it shut down leaving workers without jobs. Oklahoma City was among the cities competing for the airline's maintenance facility in 1991. Losing the bid for the facility caused city leaders to put together the MAPS sales tax program.

I am worn out -- I've been up since 5 a.m. and going without a stop -- so I don't have much to say, but my fellow Tulsa bloggers do:

Several bloggers responded at length to Ken Neal's Sunday column in the Tulsa Whirled, which called for raising taxes to cover the cost overruns of the BOk Center:

And the BOk Center made the cover of the latest Tulsa Inquiry.

MeeCiteeWurkor has Mayor Kathy Taylor's e-mail to city employees about her proposed budget and a response from an anonymous city employee.

MeeCiteeWurkor also has photos and a thoughtful entry about Monday's immigration protest at City Hall.

Tulsa Topics' Bobby was at the City Hall event, too, and has photos, including a panoramic crowd shot.

David Schuttler was at the anti-illegal-immigration rally at 21st and Garnett and has posted his mixed feelings about what he saw and some photos of the event.

Mad Okie has a question about mass healing services:

...as someone said to me a long time ago, "If they really had the gift of healing why aren't they down at the hospitals using their gift instead of making a stageshow out of it?"

Good discussion follows in the comments.

In the "Photo Fun" corner, Mad Okie has some truth-in-advertising billboards and bus benches, and Chris Medlock features State Rep. Ron Peters on an SB 1324-themed DVD cover. Nice midriff, Ron.

Red Bug at Tulsa Chiggers hosted a neighborhood crime awareness meeting in his home and writes about what he learned.

I caught the tail end of the Homeowners for Fair Zoning meeting tonight, after my son's baseball game. Former City Councilor Jim Mautino is the new HFFZ president. Other past, present, and future Councilors there: former District 2 Councilor Chris Medlock, District 4 Councilor Maria Barnes, and possibly-future District 5 Councilor Jon Kirby.

Kirby told me that Martinson has asked for a rehearing of the voter irregularity case, rather than signing off on the judge's order for a new election. Martinson, as the incumbent, will continue to serve until the revote is finally held. It may not happen until the July state primary date.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa City Hall category from May 2006.

Tulsa City Hall: April 2006 is the previous archive.

Tulsa City Hall: June 2006 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

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