It goes without saying that, with a county election fast approaching to decide the $282 million question, public support is the single most critical factor to determine if the latest river development proposal will come to fruition.
So, it isn't surprising that when the Tulsa City Council was deciding on whether to point its collective thumb up or down in a public statement on the countywide river tax vote scheduled for Oct. 9, river development proponents would pull out all the stops to win them over.
Councilor Roscoe Turner proposed a resolution about two weeks ago that would have expressed the Council's support for development along the Arkansas River, but its opposition to a countywide, seven-year 0.4 percent sales tax increase to fund the public portions of it.
The George Kaiser Family Foundation and other private contributors have offered up $111 million in private development as incentive for the $282 million in public projects along the river, to be paid for by the tax increase.
In an apparent attempt to counter Turner's opposition and to enlist the Council's aid in their ongoing efforts to sell the plan to the public, the normally publicity-shy Kaiser, County Commissioner and river development head cheerleader Randi Miller and others showed up at last week's Council committee meeting to make their best pitch, which included impassioned appeals for their public approval and a PowerPoint presentation reiterating the projects in store should Tulsa County voters approve the tax increase.
Kaiser said the ensuing development would be "a transforming event to create jobs and recreational gathering spots and recreate a sense of community that I think we've lost."
After pointing out that Riverwalk Crossing is "always crowded," Miller related to the Council how excited her teenaged-daughter's friend is about the prospect of developing other such gathering spots along the river.
"Our 13-year-olds in Tulsa want us to invest in this--they don't have anything to do," said the commissioner.
"So much of this river is for our children and their children," she added.
Miller estimated that the tax increase would cost Tulsa County voters $4-7 per month.
Sticks in the Silt
"This sounds like a lot of hypocrisy to me," responded Turner, who is apparently still smarting a bit from the county government's last big publicity campaign.
He referenced the Fairgrounds Annexation Saga of a few months ago, during which Miller and fellow commissioners and Fair Board members very publicly clashed with Turner and other councilors over his proposal to annex the Tulsa County Fairgrounds so the city could collect its 3-cent sales tax there.
They warned that the tax would drive away business and hurt the economy of the surrounding community.
"Everybody here jumped up and said 'we can't raise the sales tax,' but now I'm getting calls from the same people who couldn't raise taxes at the fairgrounds, wanting to raise taxes for the river," said Turner.
"What's the difference between raising the sales tax at the fairgrounds and raising it for the river?" he asked.
While his question might have been rhetorical, fellow Councilor Rick Westcott answered that the main difference was that the fairgrounds tax would have been permanent, while the river tax would end after seven years, or until all projects are fully-funded, whichever comes first.
"In my mind, this minimal sales tax for a limited time is a wise policy that will enable us to increase our sales tax collections to pay for streets and police and other things the city needs to do," he said.
While the tax increase would be temporary, Keith Bailey, former Williams Cos. CEO now working as a consultant for the Kaiser Foundation, said the benefits would be permanent.
"Once (the low water dams and other river modifications are) in, you've created a permanent asset," he said.
Councilor Jack Henderson, though, wanted to know what immediate benefits the plan would bring to his northernmost District 1, which he described as "a community that feels left out and shut off" as it sees attention and resources directed at other parts of the city "that are already beautiful."
"Mr. Kaiser, you're doing several things in North Tulsa already, and I appreciate that, but this plan would have to be something that affects my district area-wise," he said.
Bailey said the plan would immediately create 2,500-3,000 construction jobs that North Tulsans could help fill, and even more permanent employment opportunities once the building projects are completed.
Miller told him it's "a quality of life issue" in that North Tulsans would be able go to the river to enjoy its parks and gathering places.
Kaiser reiterated that the project "builds a sense of community."
"I think the dialogue we've had here today will get out there and go around and change peoples' minds about this," responded Henderson.
Apparently, his wasn't one of the minds that would be changed, though.
Days later, he, Turner and Councilor John Eagleton were the minority of councilors who voted 6-3 against the resolution opposing the river tax.
Turner has consistently stated his belief that the City of Tulsa should be investing in the river, not the County.
Eagleton has argued that, while he is equally excited about the prospect of river development, he believes it can be accomplished without a tax increase by using surplus Vision 2025 funds.
Henderson said he voted for the resolution, not to thwart the county's efforts, but to let his constituents know where he stands on the issue.
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