Another concerned party has added its voice to the previously stagnated debate over fairgrounds annexation, and this group might just have the leverage to see that its collective will comes to pass, if District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen's response is any indication.
"This has been kind of a food fight between the county and the city and we want to change that and consider what the people want," said Dan Hicks, coordinator of the Stop Annexation petition drive.
Hicks is among a group of residents who live in the area surrounding the fairgrounds, which falls in Christiansen's district. Hicks and his band of concerned citizens spent a week in late March knocking on doors in District 8 to collect signatures for a petition asking city councilors to cease their efforts to annex the County Fairgrounds.
They contacted 120 residents in the neighborhoods on the four sides of the fairgrounds, he said, and of that number, only seven favored annexation while 13 said they didn't feel they knew enough about the issue to take a firm position either way. The remaining 100 signed the petition.
"This is certainly not a scientific poll, but this shows a trend," said Hicks.
He also related, "My dad was a physician, and he'd say, 'Listen to the patient--he'll give the diagnosis.'"
Based on petition results, the diagnosis offered by fairgrounds neighbors is that annexation would not be a healthy move by the city.
"The people are clearly saying, 'Do not annex our fairgrounds,'" said Hicks.
And some members of the City Council are apparently listening.
Upon learning of the petition drive and its results, Christiansen appeared on a local radio show last week and announced his opposition to annexation.
"After wrestling for months with the issue of annexation from the perspective of a city councilor, I decided to step back and view the situation with the eyes of a citizen," he said.
The prospect of annexing the fairgrounds has become a divisive issue between the city and county governments of Tulsa, the councilor said, and the risk of losing a positive working relationship between the two entities would overshadow any benefit gained by annexation.
"I am hearing from people in my district and the neighborhood near the fairgrounds that they do not want the city of Tulsa to annex the Tulsa County Fairgrounds. Residents of Tulsa seem to have a special attachment to their fairgrounds and I respect their wisdom on this matter," said Christiansen.
(In February, the cities of Glenpool and Bixby invited the county to relocate the fairgrounds within their limits if the City of Tulsa annexed the land.)
Christiansen's predictions of the economic ramifications of fairgrounds annexation echoed objections raised by Stop Annexation participants.
"I've lived here for the last 14 years and I've seen a lot of changes," said petition-driver and District 8 resident Liz Garrison. "The fairgrounds is hugely popular and... has been the cause of substantial economic development here over the last few years," she said.
Garrison and other Stop Annexation collaborators said their fear is that, if the City of Tulsa appropriates the fairgrounds and imposes its 3-cent sales tax, it will eliminate the crucial marketing tool of tax exemption that has so far been successful in drawing vendors and patrons.
"This would be contrary to the city's goal to draw more people and businesses here," concurred Hicks.
"I'm afraid fewer people will use the fairgrounds, and the economic state of the surrounding area will go down, and then the value of my home will go down," said Garrison.
District 3 Councilor Roscoe Turner began the current saga over fairgrounds annexation in November when he proposed it as a way to increase the city's revenue by collecting the 3-cent sales tax there.
He has maintained that fair-goers generally don't think about saving three cents on a dollar for a hot dog or drink, so Turner said he doesn't believe the sales tax will make any difference in activity at the fairgrounds.
Vicki McCabe, another District 8 resident and Stop Annexation activist, argued to the contrary. Having been a merchant at the fair in the past, she said the tax exemption made a significant difference in the price of more costly items, such as the paintings she sold, which made selling and buying more attractive on the fairgrounds.
Turner has also argued that the sales tax exemption puts vendors in the surrounding area at an unfair competitive disadvantage.
However, Hicks, Garrison and company maintain that, by enticing people with the tax exemption, they spend more than would otherwise be spent in the surrounding area as they purchase gas and food on their way to and from the fairgrounds, thereby contributing to the city's coffers.
Hicks said these are the drawbacks that citizens are beginning to understand and thereby oppose annexation, as well as that it would cost the city more money than it would make by requiring it to provide police protection on the fairgrounds.
City Council staff attorney Drew Rees, however, recently said that the city would not be primarily responsible for security at the fairgrounds. The situation would be the same, he said, as for any other private entity hosting an event within city limits--they would be primarily responsible for security but, if a situation ensues for which they are not equipped, they could call the Tulsa Police Department for aid.
Since the county would still own the land and the facilities, they would still be responsible for security at fairground events.
Hicks said he and his group have expanded their petition drive and met with similar responses from the constituents of District 2 Councilor Rick Westcott and District 7 Councilor John Eagleton.
At the time of this writing, Eagleton was not available to confirm, but according to Hicks, the councilor said of the petition, "This document means more to me than anything the county could say."
Westcott's response was a bit more tentative.
"There are a couple of theories about elected representation," he prefaced. "One is that they should vote as they feel and the other is that they should mirror the wishes of their constituents."
His own theory is a mixture of the two, he said, and that, "in some instances, elected officials have more information than their constituents."
"Of course I'll evaluate (the petition) and weigh it," added Westcott, but he said he also plans to heed financial studies on the issue.
Christiansen said his planned "no" vote is based on the "vast majority" of Tulsans who oppose it, as well as the uncertainty of what affect the annexation would have.
"We don't have all the accurate data to make an accurate decision--we don't know how much is spent there and we don't know how much it will cost the city," he said.
"But, if it ain't broke, don't fix it--the county has done a really good job of attracting people," added Christiansen.
Both councilors were asked whether it were possible that much of the uncertainty and negative public sentiment is the result of undue negative publicity generated by county officials?
"I don't know the answer to that," answered Christiansen.
"I think it's a strong possibility," answered Westcott.
"County officials have been in the media a lot and, instead of presenting factual material, in my opinion, they've presented an emotional response, which has been detrimental," he explained.
However, Westcott said he is currently leaning toward voting against the annexation.
"The potential revenue isn't worth the potential harm," he said.
That "potential harm," he elaborated, would be the damage done to city-county relations, damage done by not listening to the wishes of his constituents and the loss of peripheral income.
One person who has not been swayed by negative publicity or by constituents' petitions is Turner.
Upon learning of Christiansen's announcement in the wake of the petition results, Turner said, "Councilor Christiansen has the right to do what he wants and I have the right to do what I want, but I'm not doing anything for just my constituents--there is an entire city of people in Tulsa."
He said he hears a different message, though, from his constituents in District 3, as well as from Tulsans in general, that being support for his annexation proposal.
Regarding the contrary conclusion suggested by the Stop Annexation petition, Turner said, "You can get anybody to say anything if you want them to."
Would anything change his mind about annexation?
"If we lose this vote, that's about it, and I would hope that, if Councilor Christiansen loses the vote on it, that will change his mind," answered Turner.
"It's not my decision--it's the Council's; but enough has been talked about this thing--it's time to do something," he added.
Hicks said he intends to take his stack of signed petitions to the public hearing on the issue on April 5, after which time the City Council will vote on whether to annex the Tulsa County Fairgrounds.
According to a report issued by Mayor Kathy Taylor's office in January, collecting the tax on the fairgrounds would bring the city between $389,000 and $1.1 million a year.
However, according to report recently issued by the Oklahoma Tax Commission, the city would collect only about $338,000.
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