A friend I hadn't heard from in a while called me last week and invited me out for a cup of coffee. She'd been following the news about the proposed Tulsa County sales tax increase for Arkansas River projects, reading this column, and talking to friends.
She'd like to see river development happen, but all the signs seem to point to a defeat for the tax. People who normally support every tax on the ballot don't like the looks of this one.
One of the things giving voters heartburn about this deal is the fact that the County Commission is asking for a second tax for projects we were promised when we voted on the Vision 2025 tax--two new low-water dams and modifications to Zink Lake.
My friend read the Vision 2025 Proposition 4 ballot resolution for herself (you can, too--the link is at vision2025.info/newsletters.php), and the plain meaning of the text is inescapable. It doesn't say study or plan or engineer--it says, "Construct two low-water dams."
The attempt by county commissioners to spin their way out of their promise only makes it harder to believe what they're saying about the new package.
What she wanted to know from me was whether there was any hope of fixing what's wrong with the county river tax package before it goes to the voters.
I told her the tax package was set in stone when the County Commission passed a ballot resolution. Now that we're less than 60 days away from the October 9 special election, changing anything would mean canceling that election and scheduling one for a later date.
But all is not lost. There is a way to move forward on the river without the need for a county tax increase, a way a way that I've outlined previously in this space:
1. Put water in the river: Build the low-water dams and the Zink Lake modifications as promised with Vision 2025 funds, allocating any extra money needed by borrowing against future revenues, the same way the county has financed nearly all the Vision 2025 projects. The money is there.
2. Let the City of Tulsa decide when, how, and whether to fund the two pedestrian bridges and the downtown "connector." They might choose to fund something else. To name just one example, that $45 million would be more than enough to pay for implementation of the Pearl District flood control plan, which includes opening Elm Creek, now buried, as a canal connecting to the lake in Centennial Park, a canal that could have Riverwalk type beside it.
3. Let each city along the river fund land acquisition for private riverfront development as it sees fit. The City of Tulsa could use a TIF to assemble the land for development on the west bank at 23rd Street.
4. The only item from the County tax plan that remains is riverscaping between 31st and 71st Street.
That may not be the best use of $90 million, but if the County Commissioners think it's a high priority, they can find surplus funds in Vision 2025 and Four to Fix the County, even cancel or defer projects that aren't yet underway.
If they had had the political will, the county commissioners could have implemented that plan without calling an election. It will still be there for them if their tax increase is rejected by the voters.
Flaws and Opportunities
My friend isn't the only one who thought there were problems with the county package. Even the county commissioners didn't think they had done the right thing at first, notwithstanding the praise from Terry Simonson, Commissioner Randi Miller's deputy, in last week's UTW.
Last Thursday, August 9, the County Commission repealed the original ballot resolution--the legal document that calls for an election and spells out the details of the tax increase, what it can be spent on, and how it will be administered--and passed a replacement resolution. The last-minute modifications validated criticism that this sales tax package was half-baked.
The previous Thursday, August 2, in the rush to schedule an election, Miller's colleagues Fred Perry and John Smaligo made a last minute change to the structure of the public trust, or authority, that would oversee the river tax fund.
Smaligo, just back from a trip to Turkey with Jerry Lasker, director of the regional planning agency INCOG, suddenly had the idea of taking away one of the City of Tulsa's seats on the nine-member authority and giving it to the chairman of the INCOG board. What a fascinating coincidence.
(Smaligo's trip was paid for by Interfaith Dialogue, an organization devoted to promoting understanding of the Muslim religion. Who paid for it is not as interesting to me as the fact that the trip took him away from his constituents and any opportunity to hear their input in the days leading to the commission's vote. Hold on to that thought; I'll come back to it.)
Smaligo's maneuver would have left the City of Tulsa with only two votes of nine on the authority, reducing the odds that any of the money in the package for land acquisition for private riverfront development would benefit the City.
The change in the authority provoked behind-the-scenes objections from City of Tulsa officials, leading to the County Commission's climb-down a week later. But under the revised structure, the City will still have only three votes of nine.
The commissioners changed much more than the composition of the authority. Even after they passed the first version of the ballot resolution, the three commissioners had three different notions of what authority the authority would have.
The original language was nearly identical to that of the Vision 2025 ballot resolution: The authority would deal with surplus funds and shortfalls, with the power to add or delete projects and to approve "major change[s] in scope" of any of the projects.
The final version gives this new public trust extremely broad powers: "The nature and scope of all projects shall be determined by" the authority.
The modified ballot resolution also spells out the estimated cost of each project in the package, detail that was omitted from the earlier version. So now we're being told the projects promised as part of Vision 2025--the two new low-water dams and modifications to Zink Lake--will cost $75 million, $64.85 million over and above the money we approved in the Vision 2025 and the 2006 Four to Fix the County tax packages.
There's nothing in the ballot resolution that guarantees money for Tulsa west bank development. There's $57.4 million for "Arkansas River corridor land acquisition, infrastructure, bridge improvements and site development, and Arkansas river studies," a pot of money that the new river authority could allocate for development in any of the five cities along the river.
There's enough wiggle room in that language that the money could even be used for the controversial Yale Avenue bridge.
Even with its third seat on the authority restored, the City of Tulsa will still be at a disadvantage. Seventy percent of the tax will be collected in the City of Tulsa, but the City will have only 33 percent of the votes. And as with Vision 2025, the City Council will be completely excluded from the decision-making process.
The cosmetic improvements the county commissioners made last Thursday didn't go far enough. If they really want to fix their plan for river development, they should go all the way and cancel the October election and start now to implement the plan I've outlined above. It will be easier to move forward with it now than after an expensive and divisive campaign and a defeat at the polls.
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