The political football game of fairground annexation is back in play after city councilors unanimously voted last week to schedule a public hearing on the issue for March 22.
Their decision came just moments after Mayor Kathy Taylor tried to take a commercial time-out in the form of a peace offering to Tulsa County officials in exchange for compromises on a handful of other contentious issues.
County Commissioner Randi Miller didn't even want to spend a timeout reviewing the call. She had had enough, conceded defeat and let somebody else take the football home.
"Over the past few weeks, the issues surrounding annexation of the county fairgrounds have become increasingly a source of contention between the City of Tulsa and Tulsa County," the mayor wrote in an open letter to Commissioners John Smaligo, Randi Miller and Fred Perry.
Taylor offered to try to have the fairground annexation issue tabled for a year if they agreed to the following conditions:
--Formation of a City County Review Committee to examine the issue and make a recommendation;
--The city and the county jointly hire a special events auditor to make sure currently required taxes are paid on items sold on the fairground;
--The County Commission join regional financial support of the Tulsa Convention and Visitor's Bureau's marketing efforts;
--The County Commission support a vote on a local fire district pending approval by the state Legislature.
"Last week, I toured the county fairgrounds property at your invitation," her letter also read. "As I noted at our meeting, the city has suggested many ways we can move forward together, but has been rebuffed by the county at every turn. I believe the compromise . . . would be a great step in showing our mutual constituencies that we indeed want to work together for the greater good of our community."
Commissioners' responses to each of Taylor's conditions were varying degrees of hot and cold, and her peace offering also didn't go over well. Instead of a year, they wanted the issue tabled for the duration of her term in office, which is three years.
"I don't want to have to go through this issue twice," said Perry in explanation of his rejection of her one-year delay proposal.
As for her other proposals, he said he can't agree to support a vote on a local fire district, not because he opposes it, but because he doesn't believe it falls under his purview as a county commissioner.
"The Tulsa World reporter got it all wrong and made it look like I opposed it," said Perry. "I don't support it or oppose it. It's up to the city governments to lobby their state legislators if they want it, though."
He also said a vote on a local fire district has nothing to do with the issue at hand, and that the mayor was attempting to use the fairground annexation issue to leverage county leaders to support her in an unrelated cause.
"I don't fault her for that; it was a nice try," said a wry Perry.
He said her other three conditions are negotiable, though, if she gets rid of the annexation issue.
"I'm optimistic that we can find some common ground on those," said Perry.
"I think we have moved significantly closer to consensus on three of four key items," Taylor later said. "That's success in my book. The dialogue that started because of the annexation issue has sparked action from the commissioners. The result will be progress on critical items facing Tulsa taxpayers."
District 3 City Councilor Roscoe Turner also didn't think much of the mayor's deal proposal.
Even if the county government acquiesced to her compromise proposals, Taylor wouldn't be able to hold up her end of the deal, Turner said. Nothing could convince him to delay any longer, and he's confident his fellow councilors are of the same disposition.
Also, since Turner expects unanimous "yea" votes on his annexation plan, it would be impervious to the mayor's veto powers, should she attempt to exercise them, since she can only overturn City Council actions if they pass by less than a two-thirds majority.
Turner first made the proposal in November to annex the land on which the fairgrounds are located--between Louisville and Yale avenues and 15th and 21st St.--so the city could collect its 3-percent sales tax there. The land would still be under county ownership and the Expo Square still under county control, however.
Beware the Ides of March!
County officials were slow to react, but had recently become increasingly outspoken against annexation of the land.
Among other objections, they contend that event bookings and patronage will suffer without the sales tax exemption as a marketing tool.
They also argue that law enforcement on the fairgrounds would become the city's responsibility after annexation, costing the city more than it would bring in through sales tax revenue.
The City Council was set in mid-February to vote on whether to schedule the public hearing, but it was dropped from the Council's agenda at the behest of the mayor, who asked for the delay so she could discuss it further with county officials.
County commissioners then went to work to rally mayors from surrounding cities to oppose the annexation, and the City of Glenpool responded by offering land on which the fairgrounds could relocate and thereby escape Tulsa's sales tax. Bixby made an identical offer the next day.
Councilor Bill Martinson suggested the issue be tabled for another week during last week's discussion on whether to vote to schedule the public hearing.
"It's a big issue and I want to the county a chance to respond," he said.
"We purposefully had this on the agenda for three weeks and nobody said anything, then they asked for two weeks, and now their two weeks are up. We've bent over backwards and delayed every time someone's asked us to delay. There isn't any new information that would change our minds," said Turner.
"Personally, I don't know anything the county could say that would change my mind on the annexation," said Councilor Jack Henderson.
After hearing from concerned parties at the public hearing in a few weeks, councilors will take support and objections into consideration for an up or down vote on whether to annex the fairgrounds.
Turner doesn't anticipate anything the public might say that will change his mind, though. He expects the same is true for his fellow councilors.
"I think we've got it, but you never know what might happen," he said.
Miller, in seeming exasperation, publicly threw up her hands and stated that she's through fighting it out over the annexation issue, warning (in an almost theatrical way) that an "I told you so" will be in order in a few years when the negative consequences foretold by the county government come about.
She did not elaborate on her prognostication or its consequences.
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