Let’s be clear, the Smart Growth Tulsa organization is eager to support a well conceived Vision 2025 renewal that would deliver on the promise and expectations of Tulsa’s comprehensive plan. Tulsans deserve to see the plan they participated in come to life. They are entitled to walkable neighborhoods, attractive public spaces, safe streets, corner grocery stores, a sustainable environment, and a decent bus system. These are the things they asked for; these are the things they expect, these are the things they deserve.
Unfortunately, that is not what the present proposal offers and I’m not optimistic about its passage. I’ve identified four areas of concern and made recommendations on how to properly address them.
First, an Overview:
After failed attempts to pass proposals aimed at revitalizing downtown along with other economic development initiatives in 1997 and 2000, Vision 2025 was approved in 2003. It expires on December 31st of this year. An attempt to renew it as Vision2, in November of 2012, also failed. Bottom line… Tulsans have rejected three of four revitalization packages presented to them over the past 19 years.
I have a lot of confidence in the ability of voters to decipher the issues and support the community’s needs when they are presented logically, honestly and rationally. They almost always do. And when packages are not well conceived, are poorly timed, or lack sufficient public input, they almost always fail.
The lesson here is obvious. Get it right, or don’t bother. Citizens were so excited when the council opened the door for economic development proposals and encouraged participants to come forward with their out-of-the-box, visionary and “needle moving” ideas and dreams for the future. Tulsans answered the call and enthusiastically responded with some truly exciting and creative concepts that met most or all of the council’s measures for consideration.
Unfortunately, that early enthusiasm has been blunted by the complexity of the package presently being offered, in an apparent attempt to convince voters that the city can hire 170 new police officers and 70 new firefighters without raising taxes, as if the city were getting them for free. Vision 2025 was passed to provide funds for discretionary vision projects, not support the city’s ongoing public safety requirements.
The funding package now taking shape is confusing and fails to address adequately or in a strategic way the accelerating challenges facing the city. Elected leaders mean well, have engaged the community, have encouraged creativity and have sought consensus. They largely reflect the instincts of the people they represent. But their mistake has been to ignore the city’s own comprehensive plan and to choose unanimity among themselves instead of the more difficult and calculated prioritization of strategic objectives serving the broader community.
Tulsans deserve coherent public investment that is relevant to them. Here’s the situation as I see it, four areas of serious concerns and what I think elected officials should do to address them and construct a winning package.
I’m concerned about the plan’s structure:
While there is precedent for utilizing multiple funding streams for a tax package, it seems on the surface to be unnecessary in this case.
As presented, the proposal shifts the burden of financing basic core services to funding streams typically reserved for far-sighted projects like those included in Vision 2025. At the same time, it captures funds from those traditional infrastructure maintenance and construction programs like Improve our Tulsa for discretionary spending on one-time capital projects like those in Vision 2025. It only sounds confusing, because it is.
By permanently capturing 1/3 of the vision money, and extending Improve our Tulsa, this approach will seriously hamper the ability of future elected officials to meet future needs.
Simply stated, it is not sound public policy because it will seriously limit the city’s ability to continue street rehabilitation programs and improve the pavement condition index (PCI). It will also permanently cripple the Vision brand which is already on life-support, by reducing its base by 33% forever. Had Oklahoma City followed a similar path its doubtful their MAPS Program would have enjoyed such remarkable success at creating growth.
General Obligation bonds are a valuable tool for addressing a community’s capital needs, but I believe they should be reserved for a city’s basic infrastructure essentials, not shifted to finance discretionary vision projects. Overall, the package is unnecessarily confusing, adding an element of risk to the public’s acceptance of what is already predicted to be a close election.
With all due respect, it is misleading to suggest that the current proposal allows the city to hire 170 new police officers and 70 new fire fighters without a tax increase; it is a scheme to reallocate funds approved for one purpose, to another unrelated purpose. It could be argued that the confusion inherit in the present proposal could discourage voters from going to the polls and lead to a low voter turnout.
My recommendations on the structure:
Ask the electorate to consider a modest tax increase to fund the escalating costs of core services, not just for public safety but also for transit, parks and recreation. Given the late date, I respectfully encourage the mayor and council to reconsider the idea of bringing the entire package as presently configured to a vote on April 5th, choosing instead to pursue a core service permanent dedicated tax increase of .4% to be allocated as follows: .2% for public safety, .1% for transit, and .1% for parks and recreation, to be split evenly between the Tulsa Parks Department and River Parks Authority.
There is a precedent for the full penny, as that is what Tulsans originally approved for Vision 2025. We suspect it would pass handily and cite Smart Growth Tulsa’s Survey Results which included responses from over 600 area residents.
I’m concerned about the plan’s term:
Fifteen years is too long for a capital package. It will severely limit the ability of the next four mayoral administrations and the next seven city councils to meet the community’s emerging needs that are heretofore unknown. By its nature a 15-year program requires up front bonding costs that further limit the number of projects which can be funded in order to protect against almost certain inflationary construction costs.
In today’s world the accelerated pace of change is relentless. Basically, anything and everything can change in 5 years, let alone 15 years. Think about what the Brady District looked like 5 years ago. It is possible if not probable that Tulsa will be presented with economic development opportunities in the not too distant future that would far exceed the return on projects slated for the end of this proposed program. It would be a shame if the city were unable to take advantage of them for lack of a funding source. The statistics detailed below were provided by The Frontier’s Kevin Canfield in a recent Blog post. They provide a sobering view of the consequences of extending Improve our Tulsa to fund Vision projects, being required in lieu of Vision money being diverted to public safety.
“A plan to capture future Improve Our Tulsa revenue to pay for Vision 2025 projects would not only significantly reduce funding for street rehabilitation but also eliminate funding for sidewalk construction, traffic signals, facility repairs, small area plans and dozens of other projects, according to an analysis done by the city’s Finance and Engineering departments.
‘The report focuses on the city’s capital improvement needs from fiscal years 2020 through 2023. The draft Vision 2025 renewal package formulated by city councilors and Mayor Dewey Bartlett calls for capturing nearly $300 million in Improve Our Tulsa sales tax and bond revenue that would have otherwise gone to the projects identified in the report.
My recommendations on the length of the term:
If the core service permanent dedicated funding tax for public safety, transit, parks and recreation are all approved in an April vote as I’ve proposed, the river and economic development package could then be shortened to no more than six to eight years and voted on in June or August. That will obviously require that the project list be shortened considerably, giving favor to only those that are determined to have the highest priority, based upon their public support and the expected and verifiable return on investment.
This strategy will preserve a valued revenue stream (Vision) for addressing future discretionary capital needs that could well change over the next few years. Projects that don’t make the cut this time, and some that would likely not be built anyway within the six to eight-year time period, could come back and compete for funding as early as 2023 or even sooner.
I’m concerned about the election’s timing:
The rush to finalize ballot initiatives for an April vote is especially problematic for the River and Economic Development elements. The current proposal is complicated and confusing and there are many unanswered questions which have arisen at the last hour to meet a February 4th Tulsa County Election Board deadline for ballot language and resolutions.
While it’s true there have been many vision public meetings over the past 18 to 24 months, the structure of the package and its proposed funding sources was not finalized in its present form until the Dec. 18 City Council/Mayor retreat.
My sense is that voters want to know more about both the river package and the economic development projects in the latest proposal. Yes, there have been many meetings over the entire process, but scarcely few of them, save three hastily called meetings the week of January 11th have actually answered questions or solicited input on the final short list of projects agreed upon by councilors. The .6% Vision 2025 sales tax is the only current funding source available to the City of Tulsa that faces eminent expiration, and that is not until the end of this year which only just began. So what is the rush? Let’s take the time we need to get it right, and not be hasty.
My recommendations on the election timing:
The City of Tulsa should address these very separate issues one at a time, so people know exactly what options they have and what they can expect. If elected officials are convinced beyond any doubt that the city needs the dedicated public safety funding, and if they believe the community agrees and understands that taxpayers must pay for these services, then don’t hesitate to offer a straight forward chance to do so without sacrificing funding streams the city depends upon for other needs.
My recommendation includes an April 5th vote, but only on the permanent dedicated funding sought for public safety, transit, parks and recreation.
I further recommend that a vote on the River and Economic Development proposals be postponed until regular statewide elections scheduled for either June 28th or August 23rd to allow more time to settle how long the term of the Vision extension will run and which projects will be included, after considering the results of the April election.
For instance, if the .1% permanent dedicated funding for Parks and Recreation passes, which should be splint 50/50 between the Tulsa Park Department and the River Parks Authority, then some of the River Parks Trails could be funded through the permanent dedicated funding and scaled back from the River package.
I’m concerned about the priorities:
While there were a number of vision meetings dedicated to the economic development proposals, much of the council’s main focus was directed at the river and public safety. That has left precious little time to adequately consider which of the proposed economic development projects actually delivers on the council’s own list of eligibility criteria. While compromise is not unexpected in collaborative efforts, it now looks as if the visionary litmus test has been sacrificed in favor of political patronage and the pet projects of individual councilors.
One example comes quickly to mind, the $19 million South Mingo Road improvement project that arguably has no place in a vision package. Another would be the $12 million commercial revitalization fund, a questionable attempt to bring new life to failing private sector real estate projects, that over time tend to cure themselves. There are a number of other suspect projects including the $9.4 million Air National Guard MTC.
Also of concern, is the inclusion of a new south Tulsa low-water dam in the Vision renewal package in spite of what appears to be significant opposition to it. The City of Tulsa’s Feedback Forum responses indicated tepid support for river development, coming in 7th out of the 8 categories.
Those numbers are consistent with Smart Growth Tulsa’s Survey Results, where the south Tulsa Dam garnered only marginal support, well below interest in funding requests like Free citywide Wi-Fi, dedicated funding for parks and recreation, a more aggressive investment in public transit (a full .2% as recommend by the Council’s Transportation Task Force, not the .05% being currently considered), and other projects like a Streetcar, acquisition of the west side concrete plant and new pedestrian and bicycle trails in the IDL.
Including a new south Tulsa low-water dam in the river package could risk approval of the much more popular Zink Dam rebuild, an integral part of the design of A Gathering Place. A defeat of the river package that might result from having the south Tulsa Dam bundled with the Zink Dam rebuild, would adversely affect the hundreds of millions in private donations to the new park under construction.
I recommend a review of the priorities:
While there are undoubtedly some very deserving projects which made the final cut in the existing proposal, I have heard a lot of feedback from SGT members, friends, and followers who feel let down by the process and describe the end product as uninspiring and lacking in vision.
If the time table I’ve proposed were seriously considered, a seven-year extension of the .6% Vision 2025 tax would produce about $336 million.
I believe the City of Tulsa should seriously consider allowing Tulsa County to capture .1% of the .6% total, or roughly $56 million over that seven-year time frame. Looking back, it now seems ill-advised that the City of Tulsa unilaterally appropriated the expiring 4toFix funds for Improve our Tulsa, and now it’s time to make it right. It has been repeatedly stated at some of the recent Vision meetings that it is not that unusual to utilize multiple funding streams in a new package. Well, it may not be that unusual, but in my view, it is confusing, reflects a refusal to live within our means, and will likely come back to haunt us if this 15-year proposal is approved.
Allowing the county their fair share would leave .5% for the City of Tulsa, or approximately $280 million. That is why it would be prudent to determine if there is actually enough support for a south Tulsa dam, given all of the other priorities, before including it in the river package. The guess here is that there isn’t. The city should not assemble the economic development package until we know the answer to the south Tulsa Dam question.
Following the schedule I’ve proposed would allow plenty of time to conduct new polls and or surveys to gauge the public’s interest in a number of areas, including the south Tulsa low-water dam. The Arkansas River Infrastructure Task Force wisely abandoned the idea, at least for now, of supporting new dams in Sand Springs and Bixby after the economics were questioned. Those concerns often overshadowed the never the less important environmental and ecological impacts of the dams. I urge the Arkansas River Infrastructure Task Force to reconvene open meetings and answer relevant questions about the proposed south Tulsa dam.
I’m proud of the survey that Smart Growth Tulsa sponsored. Our organization learned a lot along the way. I believe the mayor and city council can avoid a lot heartbreak and wringing of hands if they will simply once again ask Tulsans what they want to see on the ballot.
I’m confident that SGT can help in this process; by partnering and or co-sponsoring with the City Council, the Tulsa Metro Chamber and or any other stakeholders a new, more scientific and representative survey to explicitly determine what Tulsans most want to see on the ballot. To win approval, taxpayers must be assured that their voice is heard. When citizens are invited to help decide how to prioritize a municipal budget involving the allocation of discretionary funds, it helps elected officials build trust, and the citizens gain a deeper understanding of the complex political issues a community faces when addressing their needs.
Editors Note: The views expressed in the preceding Opinion / Editorial are those of the contributing author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or policy of Smart Growth Tulsa, its Trustees or Advisory Board members, its affiliate member organizations, friends or followers unless specifically stated.