The City Council is expected to get its first look at the proposed Fiscal Year 2010-2011 municipal budget from Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. this week, but many councilors already have given a good deal of thought to what they hope that budget looks like.
At least three have expressed a desire to see public safety become more of a priority in the new budget. Specifically, they hope to see the dozens of police officers who were laid off earlier this year due to a cost-saving measure returned to the job, though they acknowledged it will be difficult to make that happen.
"The potential for Tulsa to be perceived as a worse place to live is very real," District 7 Councilor John Eagleton said, explaining his belief that spending for police and streets should be expanded in the new budget. "If that occurs, our tax receipts will dissipate not at the plodding rate that they have at the last 20 years but at an accelerated rate. Our city has been teetering on a knife edge for the last 20 years."
Eagleton believes Tulsa easily could follow the example of Detroit, a once-thriving city that now is widely regarded as America's foreclosure capital.
"Imagine Tulsa looking like that ... We're really at risk for something that cataclysmic to happen," he said.
District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen echoed those thoughts.
"Public safety is the foundation of the city of Tulsa," he said. "If people don't feel safe, they're not going to go out and spend money, and our sales tax receipts will go down.
"That may mean there are compromises to be made by both the (Fraternal Order of Police) and the city, but we need to do something to get those police officers rehired."
That task will be easier said than done. An historic decline in the city's sales tax receipts has so severely impacted the general fund that a combination of layoffs, furlough days and service reductions across all departments was required to keep the city above water midway through the last fiscal year. Representatives of the city's Finance Department believe any kind of rally is close to a year away, meaning city officials will have to get used to the idea of making do with less -- perhaps a lot less -- for the near future.
Despite his warnings about where Tulsa might be headed, Eagleton acknowledged the chances of getting what he wants in the next budget are poor. When asked if he believed there was a way for the city to meet all its obligations and still direct the kind of spending toward public safety and streets that he would like to see, he responded, "No, there's not. There's simply not enough wiggle room to accommodate everything that needs to be done. It's tight as a noose. You've got to boil it down to core government services. It's going to be ugly."
District 9 Councilor G.T. Bynum -- another proponent of rehiring the laid-off police officers, as well as eliminating the furlough days for city employees -- agreed.
"I don't foresee us being able to do those things in this budget," he said.
But Christiansen disagreed.
"I am very optimistic it will happen," he said. "I think the FOP and city negotiations being talked about now may well allow us to rehire those officers even though the projections for our sales tax revenue are flat for the next fiscal year."
Bynum is simply hoping this new budget will be realistic enough so that city leaders can avoid having to make mid-year cuts, as they did twice during the current fiscal year.
Terry Simonson, the mayor's chief of staff, said in a recent interview he believed the budget reductions city officials approved in January would be enough to keep another round of major cuts from being necessary this time.
Christiansen said he thinks the Finance Department has a good handle on Tulsa's economic future, and he's working from the belief that another round of deep reductions won't have to take place.
"It seems to me we've bottomed out, and things are not going to get any worse," he said. "I think if anything, things may improve over projections, and we'll have a little more than we think we're going to have."
Still, no one is forecasting an immediate end to the city's economic woes. To District 3 Councilor Roscoe Turner, that means debate over the specifics of this budget should be limited. He's not expecting a contentious approval process.
"It shouldn't be," he said. "This should be a flat budget (compared to the $228 million budget the city ended up with for FY 2009-10), almost to the point where you've got to go with whatever we're operating on now."
Eagleton credited Bartlett's administration for taking a "hard, knife-edge approach" to the budget and doing what was necessary to stabilize the budget last winter after a previous attempt to fix it in October came up short.
"I've come to the realization he was the right man for the job at the right time, right now," he said of the mayor.
Turner repeated Eagleton's assertion that there will be no wiggle room in the new budget. But he did express the belief that other issues have tended to dominate the attention of city officials throughout the past several weeks.
"They've been doing everything but working on the budget," he said. "Nobody's had time to work on that."
District 6 Councilor Jim Mautino said he won't be pushing for different priorities in the new budget. He simply wants to see the city managed better.
"I think it's hard for me to look at it right now and say things got shorted (in the last budget)," he said. "But the city can work a lot more efficiently. I have been picking on Public Works ever since I was in office before (earlier this decade). Here's a department with a $221 million annual budget, and we know it can be more efficient ... If they make just a 1 percent improvement, that results in $2.2 million (in savings). Let's start getting with those departments, and then we can really make a difference."
Mautino believes the Public Works Department has gone wrong by outsourcing so much of its work on streets to contractors. He believes it's necessary for city employees to feel a pride of ownership in their work.
"We need to work smarter," he said. "We need to have city employees dedicated to the city and living in the city. Right now, we've got 2,000 city employees who live outside the city limits. It's helping the cities around us."
Mautino said the key to Tulsa emerging from its economic problems is developing and promoting retail sales. There are several locations in his district, he said, that are ripe for such development, including a site at 129th East Avenue and Admiral Place where the city already has laid new water and sewer lines.
"You could have a half-mile riverwalk-type development there, since it's right by an Artesian well," he said. "We could develop that. We just need the people to do it . . . in our district, we need it. We need grocery stores, we need retail. Right now, people have to travel to 71st Street, Broken Arrow or Catoosa to shop. So that's one of the things we need to do. We need to have more development in places we have development ready."
Bynum's expectation of the budget approval process is that, even with few options available, there will be some disagreements.
"There are different things we all think are most important and most valuable," he said. "With such a tight budget, where you're looking at reductions again and again in service and in personnel, that (sic) can become a heated subject."
He recalled the furor that accompanied the vote on last year's budget, when then-District 5 Councilor Bill Martinson delivered an 11th hour proposal that nearly split the council in half before being rejected.
"Last year, there wasn't a whole lot of budget amendments or changes proposed until the last week," he said. "Hopefully, we'll have a much more engaged process this time from April 29 to late June, when we pass it."
Martinson's proposal -- which its supporters argue was right in line with the changes city officials ultimately were forced to adopt -- simply came too late, catching many councilors off guard, Bynum said, though he acknowledged the trials of the past year have made everyone more cautious.
"That's not the way to do it," he said. "I do think we go into this with a more acute awareness of our position because we just went through the budget cuts we did."
Bynum hopes to avoid such situations in the future by promoting the idea of the city adopting a rainy day fund. He expects to have a concrete proposal before the council next week that would call for putting the idea before voters in the form of a change to the city charter.
The idea is relatively simple, he said.
"In good economic times, you allow for a certain percentage of growth (in sales tax receipts to go into the general fund), say 4 or 5 percent," he said. "Anything over that, you set aside in a rainy day fund, so when you have the downturns we're seeing, you're prepared for it."
The practical effect of that proposal, if it is adopted, would be to put an end to the spikes and sharp declines that have characterized the city budget for many years, he said.
"In those spike periods of time, we'd be regulating the growth of government and setting aside money so we can weather the bad times better than we have," he said. "It's basic stuff any business owner does."
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