It's still gigantic -- one proposal by Councilor Phil Lakin has it at more than $900 million. And people voting on the tax package in November would still potentially be influenced by a fiercely-contested mayoral campaign.
These reasons gave pause to many city councilors back in March when considering the extension of a sales tax package to fund street repairs and other infrastructure. The proposal would keep the city's sales tax rate the same, but ask voters to keep taxes in place that would otherwise expire.
"The streets package is going to pass if it's on the ballot, in my personal opinion, because the citizens of Tulsa understand those needs, they're clear, there's no debate about that. But everything else is going to require a lot more work and scrutiny," Councilor G.T. Bynum told fellow councilors at a March 14 meeting.
Bynum proposed -- to much agreement among councilors at the time -- splitting the package in two and having separate elections: one, a "streets only" vote, made up of a 0.167 cent sales tax and general obligation bonds; the other a mix of streets and other infrastructure projects funded by the one-cent portion of sales tax known as the "third penny" tax.
Fast forward three months, and the council has changed its thinking. In a nonbinding vote on June 20, the group backed having a single election decide the fate of an enormous chunk of sales tax dollars.
"I don't know how you can get a stand-alone street package to cover all the needs of our streets," noted Councilor David Patrick, who has always supported a single election. Based on meetings with city street officials, a separate "third penny" proposal, would likely include many streets-related projects.
In another key nonbinding vote -- but a confusing one -- the council voted 6-1 to keep the 0.167 portion of sales tax money going to the city's "capital program," in the words of a motion made by Bynum.
Some councilors saw the vote as a chance to shoot down Mayor Dewey Bartlett's public safety funding plan. Bartlett -- with support from police, fire and streets leaders -- wants voters to decide if roughly $12 million yearly should fund police and fire academies, as well as street crews and equipment. Currently, those funds go to general infrastructure projects.
Councilor Blake Ewing said at the council meeting he would not be swayed in favor of Bartlett's plan, noting that automated callers who apparently flooded the phone lines of some councilors would not change his mind.
Yet Patrick, in a June 24 phone interview, said his vote -- though the same as Ewing's -- was not a criticism of Bartlett's plan.
"I still think it's a really viable option that we need to look into," Patrick said, explaining that he thinks that the funding priorities in Bartlett's plan include "capital" needs.
With public meetings coming up to outline potential projects for voters, Patrick said he still thinks Bartlett's plan could be presented at those meetings.
Councilor Skip Steele was the lone vote against Bynum's motion. Councilor Phil Lakin also voted with the majority, but has talked about possibly changing Bartlett's plan to incentivize a reduction in police overtime.
As a group, however, the council had never voiced much support Bartlett's plan in earlier committee meetings.
At a committee meeting which took place before the non-binding vote, Councilor Jack Henderson told Bartlett why he didn't support putting the plan on the ballot: "Until we digest it and understand it, for us to put it on the vote of the people just on your say so, that's not the way we work as a council, never have and shouldn't be. If we're going to be a team in this, we need to be team in the input of it."
The idea of two separate elections once had broad council support, though never unanimous. Patrick noted in an interview the "short time frames" between potential election dates next year and when sales taxes are set to expire.
"We've gone kind of around on this," Bynum told councilors at the June 20 committee meeting.
He referred to the concern back in March about the lack of time to properly evaluate projects. "I feel like we've been pretty dadgum diligent about that over the last couple of months," he said.
Councilor Phil Lakin has also spoken in favor of a single election, though with separate propositions. Bartlett had also publicly favored a single election with different propositions. Bynum said he now favors this approach.
"There are a lot of people out there who do want a stand-alone streets package," Bynum said.
Whether two propositions or one, voters might be looking at might at some very large numbers.
Lakin put forth a draft proposal considering all funding sources. Including some extra money for street widening, his plan involves collecting over $900 million in sales taxes for infrastructure needs. He told councilors that $686 million -- almost exactly 75 percent -- would go "toward streets or ADA transportation needs or pedestrian or alternative transportation" projects, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The dollar amount can be more precise, with councilors also voting in a nonbinding resolution to present to voters taxes that would expire not on a specific date, but rather when a certain amount of money is collected. Councilors said this type of tax extension would ensure that projects are completely funded.
Asked about the potential "sticker shock" in presenting voters with such a large tax proposal, Patrick emphasized that tax rates would stay the same.
"It doesn't add any more burden to you, it just extends it out for a longer length of time," Patrick said.
The last time the city tried to bring forth a historically-large tax package, a 2008 proposal for a 12-year, $2 billion plan devoted to streets, it wound up being whittled down in size, largely in response to a series of summer town-hall meetings. This year could bring another summer of change. The first of five public meetings is scheduled for July 16 at 6pm at Hardesty Regional Library.
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