Since childhood, I've been fascinated by maps. I was particularly intrigued by historic enclaves, little countries and territories surrounded on all sides by another jurisdiction. There was the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, surrounded by Italy, and the Kingdom of Lesotho, surrounded by South Africa. Back then, West Berlin was an island of freedom in the midst of Communist-controlled East Germany, and the Canal Zone was an outpost of the USA in the heart of Panama.
There's Vatican City and Monaco, two ends of the spectrum.
These little enclaves were places where the laws, regulations, and taxes of the enveloping countries didn't apply -- an exception to the surrounding sameness.
As a kid in Tulsa in the '70s, I could see enclaves on our city map, too, spots on the city map marked "OUT" in big letters -- surrounded by the City of Tulsa, but not within its corporate boundaries, and not subject to its laws and taxes.
Most of them are still there. There's one on north Yale around some old strip mines and one covering the east side of the airport. There are a bunch of little enclaves in the industrial areas along Charles Page Boulevard, and a big one encompassing the Texaco (now Sinclair) refinery on the west bank.
Tulsa County's LaFortune Park once was an unincorporated enclave -- the whole half-section between Yale, Hudson, 51st and 61st, except for the Memorial High School Campus.
The most familiar enclave of all was Expo Square, also known as the Tulsa County Fairgrounds. And as fascinating as enclaves can be, it's high time that this one was homogenized into the surrounding city.
The Fairgrounds were relocated to the current site in 1923, then miles east of the Tulsa city limits. Over the next four decades, the growth of the city moved out to and around the Fairgrounds, and new subdivisions were incorporated into the city as they were created. By 1960, the Fairgrounds were completely surrounded by Tulsa.
Pieces of the almost 240-acre site have been within the city limits at various times. In the 1940's temporary housing on the west side of the Fairgrounds was added to the city, and then de-annexed after the housing was removed. Also in the '40s, a small tract just east of the southwest corner of the Fairgrounds was deeded to the city for the location of a water tower. Although the last tower was demolished in 1996, the one-acre tower location is still owned by the City of Tulsa, and within the city limits.
Annexation has been discussed informally for years, but in late November, Tulsa City Councilor Roscoe Turner brought the issue up for consideration by his colleagues.
Can the city annex the fairgrounds, which is county property? Yes, and the county can't do anything to stop it.
Oklahoma state law (Title 11, Section 21-103) provides that if a municipality surrounds a piece of unincorporated territory at least 300 feet deep on at least three sides, the municipality may annex the land without the consent of the landowners.
Annexation would not transfer ownership to the city.
There is a similar situation with LaFortune Park. When the land for the park was donated to the county, it was outside the city limits and remained outside as the city grew up around it. Although the park and, later, the adjacent County Poor Farm (now known as the Gardens at LaFortune Park) are now subject to the city's ordinances, they remain under the county's ownership.
So the city can annex Expo Square, but why should it? Councilor Turner sees additional city sales tax revenue as the main benefit.
Currently, county and state sales taxes are collected on retail purchases at Expo Square, but the 3% city sales tax is not, and many retailers of big-ticket items take full advantage of that fact. In a recent story in the daily paper, departing County Commissioner Bob Dick mentioned that he bought a $6,000 hot tub at Expo Square, thus dodging $180 in city sales taxes.
(According to Title 68, Section 1411 of state statutes, if Dick installed the hot tub in his Tulsa home, he owes the city $180 in "use tax," but the tax is effectively voluntary for individual purchases -- there's no practical way to enforce it.)
So although the city provides all the roads leading to Expo Square and provides fire protection, hazmat cleanup, and emergency medical service--every municipal service except law enforcement, which is handled by the sheriff--for Expo Square, none of the retail sales that occur at Expo Square are taxed to pay for those services.
If annexed Expo Square's water rate would drop from the higher out-of-city rate, but loss of that extra revenue wouldn't detract from the sales tax gain. Water revenues go to a different fund that cannot be used for city general fund operating costs like police protection and street repair.
Annexation would also subject Expo Square to the city's stormwater management fees; outside the city limits, it's exempt, even though its mostly impervious surface adds to the flooding burden of the city's Mill and Mingo Creeks.
Would annexation change the operation of Expo Square? It would still be owned by Tulsa County and run by the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority (TCPFA, better known as the Fair Board), which consists of the three County Commissioners and two other members appointed by them, currently Jim Orbison and Clark Brewster.
Annexation wouldn't hinder the Fair Board's ability to enter into long-term, non-competitive sweetheart contracts, like their new deal with Murphy Brothers for the operation of the Tulsa State Fair midway, a deal that includes the right to operate a permanent amusement park at Expo Square in place of Bell's.
But annexation would subject Expo Square activities to the same city ordinances that apply on the other side of the street. Currently, any activity the Fair Board (the County Commissioners and their appointees) wants to allow only needs approval by the Tulsa County Board of Adjustment (appointed by the County Commissioners) or the County Commissioners themselves.
With annexation, there would be an independent check on Expo Square development, something sorely lacking at present. When the Fair Board considers a lease, the proposed activity would have to comply with the city zoning code. The same noise ordinances would apply on and off the fairgrounds.
I'm sure existing uses would be grandfathered in, but any zoning relief needed for whatever replaces Bell's, for example, would have to pass muster with the City of Tulsa's Board of Adjustment (which applies the law as it is--one of Bill LaFortune's positive legacies), and zoning changes would go before the Tulsa City Council.
Annexation would also eliminate law enforcement challenges created by this hole in the city's jurisdiction, and businesses operating at Expo Square would no longer enjoy a tax and regulatory advantage over competing businesses located just a few blocks away.
Councilor Turner is proceeding with due diligence, working with city staff to determine the likely costs and revenue benefits of annexation. Mayor Kathy Taylor doesn't seem interested in helping--mayoral aide Susan Neal gave a passive-aggressive response when asked about the Mayor's opinion on the issue, suggesting that Turner would have to develop his own analysis of the benefits. Neal didn't offer the assistance of the Mayor's office to study the possibility.
You'd think the Mayor and the department heads would be interested in any opportunity to raise city revenues without raising tax rates, but City Hall can be a funny place. We'll see how quickly they cooperate with Turner's requests for information.
If you share my opinion that Expo Square annexation is an idea whose time has come, you might drop a line to Her Honor at firstname.lastname@example.org to nudge her in the right direction.
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