"Hypocrisy" is a word that's come up a lot lately during City Council members' discussions about the County Commission's proposal for a tax increase to fund river development.
The Commission recently voted to hold a popular election on Oct. 9 in which Tulsa County residents will decide on a sales tax increase of 4/10 of a penny over seven years to provide $282 million in public funding for river enhancement projects, to which private contributors would add $111 million for community gathering spots along River Parks and other projects.
"This sounds like a lot of hypocrisy to me," said City Councilor Roscoe Turner lately when river tax advocates showed up at City Hall in an attempt to sway councilors from a resolution he'd proposed to oppose the plan.
The councilor pointed to the commissioners' vehement opposition to his proposed annexation of the Tulsa County Fairgrounds earlier in the year, which would have enabled collection of the city's three-cent sales tax from the 230-acre stretch of unincorporated land within the city's borders.
"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.
His resolution to oppose the river tax failed by a vote of 6-3 against, but one of his allies on the issue, Councilor John Eagleton, also joined him in his charge of hypocrisy against county commissioners.
Eagleton had compiled a collection of quotes from various news clippings, mostly from the local daily paper, in which Commissioners Randi Miller, John Smaligo and Fred Perry were quoted in various contexts stating their conservative tax policy stances and their general opposition to tax increases.
"The commissioners believe in solid conservative economic principles that when you raise taxes, you hamper commerce and industry," Smaligo was quoted as having said regarding the annexation issue.
"Instead of the city trying to balance its budget on the back of taxpayers, they need to look at how to cut taxes," Miller was quoted as having said when she spoke to the same issue.
"I would encourage the city to follow the county's lead in doing some self-audits. Be more introspective in their outlook instead of seeking opportunities for quick cash from other governmental entities, and doing so on the backs of taxpayers," she also said.
Eagleton also managed to dig up a copy of a pledge card Perry had signed in 2001 and 2003, during his state House of Representatives days, for the "Americans for Tax Reform" group.
The card stated, "I, Fred Perry, pledge to the taxpayers of the 69th district of the state of Oklahoma and to all the people of this state that I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes."
During another episode from his time in the Legislature, Perry was quoted as having said, "The sales tax is the most regressive tax there is . . . It takes a bigger percentage of money from a low-income person than those in the middle or upper class. We should be looking at ways to cut down on the dependence on the sales tax, not putting new structures in place to extract sales taxes from people."
Eagleton told UTW that he had the clippings collected "so I could analyze the history of the county commissioners' statements in their prior lives."
"I thought these people ran as conservatives, and I lumped them together with people like Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan," the councilor added, pointing to an apparent gap between their past stated positions and their current stance favoring a countywide tax increase.
In the Confessional
Naturally, the three denied that such a gap exists.
"The things I have said, I stand by," Miller told UTW.
The real gap, she said, is between the temporary sales tax increase she and other commissioners support and that advocated by Eagleton when he argued to annex the fairgrounds.
"A three-cent sales tax is huge on citizens, this is four-tenths of a penny, and it's for an economic development base of 10 dollars for every dollar of taxes paid," Miller said.
"The City of Tulsa could not do that with a fairgrounds annexation base, but with a river tax, we know we'll get a 10-to-one return," she added (for details on how we know that, see the related article, "Mining the River," Page in this week's UTW).
"People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," said Perry in response to Eagleton's comments and quotation compilation.
He pointed out that the tax increase favored by Eagleton was 7.5 times the increase proposed by the County Commission and, unlike the river tax, wouldn't have created jobs or even contributed to city coffers.
However, prior to the commissioners' rebuttals, Eagleton had stated, "The tax proposed by the commissioners is almost a thousand times greater than the fairgrounds tax would have been" in that it would be collected from the entire county, while annexation would have only led to a tax increase for the 230 acres comprising the fairgrounds.
Also, the councilor took pains to make clear, he did not support annexation for the purpose of taxation, but for homogenizing the laws applying at the fairgrounds with those of the surrounding area.
As for the "no tax increases"-pledge card signed by Perry: "I rescinded that pledge card years ago," the commissioner said.
Perry said he contacted ATR in 2004, asking them to remove his name from their list of pledge-signers.
"I didn't want my hands tied," he said, explaining that there are certain circumstances in which tax increases are appropriate."
He then restated his pledge of allegiance to conservatism by invoking the name of the state's guardian of fiscal tight-fistedness: "Jim Inhofe has said there are two places when taxes should be increased--for defense and infrastructure," he said.
"I consider this an infrastructure improvement investment," Perry added.
However, the commissioner said he was conflicted over it when he voted to hold an election for the river tax.
Perry said objections from the City of Broken Arrow, as well as the regressive nature of sales tax, gave him reservations about voting "yes."
However, he said, "What benefits Tulsa ultimately benefits the outlying areas, too--if it helps the interior of the county, it helps the exterior."
Also, to mitigate the regressive nature of the tax, Perry said, at his insistence, a provision for a $25 per year rebate for senior citizens and for low income citizens was included in the resolution the Commission approved calling for the Oct. 9 election.
In prior discussions, Miller estimated that the river tax would cost the average citizen $4-7 per month.
Smaligo also stood by his past statements.
"In situations where taxes are increased simply to be able to pad government appropriations for existing operations, that's generally not a wise decision to make, but here we're giving the public the opportunity to decide for themselves if river development will enhance their quality of life--for me, it was the right decision to make," he told UTW.
"I'm disappointed that Councilor Eagleton is spending all his time and resources researching our past statements," Smaligo added. "If he'd spend his time in a way that would benefit his constituents in northeastern Oklahoma, I think we'd be better off."
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