The reasons for voting against the proposed Tulsa County sales tax increase for river projects into four words that all start with the letter P: Parks, priorities, plans, and promises.
1. Tulsa County's cities and towns need well-maintained and well-equipped parks in every neighborhood. The current proposal focuses on a narrow strip near the city's wealthiest neighborhoods and grabs tax dollars for the county that the City of Tulsa and other cities and towns might prefer to use for parks closer to home. Facilities like pools and recreation centers are more important needs to serve children in our city's poorest neighborhoods.
2. Basic public services should be our top priority for spending our tax dollars. We've already approved one half-billion-dollar "quality of life" tax package, and we haven't finished paying it off yet. It's time to focus on boring but necessary matters like reducing our crime rate and fixing our streets. Again, the current proposal diverts funds to the county that cities could decide to use for basic public services.
3. What good is a plan if you don't follow it? Most of the money in the current tax proposal is going to implement projects that aren't in the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan. And there's a $57.4 million pot of money in this tax package could be spent for just about anything, whether it's in the plan or not.
4. We're being asked for more money from the same County Commission that won't keep its promise to build two low-water dams with the Vision 2025 tax. And they're already hinting that they may not keep all the promises they're making for this tax increase.
More about parks and priorities next week.
Let's begin with the plan, specifically the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan (ARCMP), sometimes referred to as the INCOG plan after the regional planning agency that shepherded its development. I'm going to use this somewhat awkward acronym--ARCMP--to be very precise about which plan is being discussed, because the pro-tax forces are working hard to blur important distinctions.
The ARCMP was a collaborative process involving many public meetings and plenty of opportunities for public comment. The resulting master plan was adopted by the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, the Tulsa City Council, and the Tulsa County Commission. The process of developing the ARCMP has been underway for about four years.
The ARCMP is intended to serve as the standard by which government initiatives for development along the Arkansas River corridor in Tulsa County should be evaluated for funding, and the standard by which private development initiatives should be judged for approval.
If we're going to raise taxes to implement the ARCMP, shouldn't all of the money go toward components of the ARCMP?
The proposal on the ballot on October 9th is not the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan. More than half of the money in the October 9th sales tax increase will go to projects that are not in the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan: pedestrian bridges at 41st and 61st ($30 million), downtown connector ($15 million), and the "living river" concept ($90 million).
One of those projects -- the 41st Street pedestrian-only bridge -- would prevent ever implementing a project that is in both the ARCMP and the city's master street and highway plan -- a 41st Street bridge for cars and pedestrians.
The current tax proposal came together in about two months, with a handful of public informational meetings that gave no meaningful opportunity for public input. By the time the package was made public, it was a done deal.
Where did these non-planned ideas come from? The George Kaiser Family Foundation hired Vancouver architect Bing Thom to develop concepts for the river south of 21st Street. This is the same architect who developed "The Channels" concept of islands in the Arkansas River for the Tulsa Stakeholders, Inc.
Duplicity and Double Dipping
Because the focus last fall was on "The Channels," it was easy to overlook what Bing Thom was saying about the work he was doing for Kaiser, but with the benefit of hindsight it's easy to see which elements of the current tax plan are being driven by Thom's concepts.
On "Studio Tulsa" last October 24, Bing Thom told KWGS's Rich Fisher, "We're going to provide crossings to the river that are not for automobiles, so you can take a series of loops. Now, you might be able to loop 21st to 41st, 41st to 61st, 61st to wherever." In that same interview, you can hear Thom drop hints, in the context of his work for Kaiser, about the concept now being called "the living river."
None of this is to say that Bing Thom's concepts are bad ideas -- although putting a pedestrian only bridge at 41st Street and eliminating the plan for an eventual traffic bridge at that location is bad for west Tulsa, and it works against Thom's stated goal to use the river to knit both sides together.
The problem is that the Vancouver architect's ideas were thrown into this package without going through the thorough vetting process that was used for the ARCMP, with public hearings, public input, and action by public bodies leading up to official incorporation into the ARCMP.
The ARCMP is a part of the City of Tulsa's Comprehensive Plan, and any amendment to that plan must be approved by the Tulsa City Council. Putting these non-planned projects in a tax proposal makes a mockery of comprehensive planning.
Another $57.4 million in the tax proposal may or may not be in accordance with the ARCMP; it all depends on how it's spent. The legal description in the ballot resolution is broad enough to tow a barge through. It could include anything the nine-member trust authority wants to include, whether it's part of the ARCMP or not.
"Arkansas River corridor land acquisition, infrastructure, bridge improvements and site development, and Arkansas river studies for Tulsa, Broken Arrow, Jenks, Sand Springs and Bixby."
While county officials have hinted that this money includes the $52 million needed to acquire the concrete plant to make way for major commercial development on Tulsa's west bank at 21st Street, nothing in the official signed and notarized ballot resolution commits any money for that purpose.
If the trust authority decides to spend that money to facilitate a new Drillers Stadium on the Jenks riverfront or to pay for a south Tulsa County bridge, the voters will have absolutely no recourse. Either project would be well within the description in the ballot resolution. County officials can honestly say they made no binding promises that the money would be used for Tulsa's west bank.
Not that our county officials feel bound by promises, even when they've put them in a contract with the voters.
No matter how they wriggle and squirm, they can't dodge the fact that the ballot resolution for Vision 2025 Proposition No. 4, the signed and notarized legal commitment from the Tulsa County Commissioners to the voters, says, "Construct two low water dams on Arkansas River the locations of which will be determined in the Arkansas River Corridor Plan."
The same ballot resolution acknowledges that the cost estimates for projects may be incorrect, but commits the county to building the projects nevertheless.
Being wrong about the cost of the arena didn't stop the Tulsa County Vision Authority from providing that project more funds to make sure that it was completed as promised. The same thing could be done for the Vision 2025 river projects.
The County Commissioners' real message to voters comes straight from the movie Animal House:
"You (fouled) up. You trusted us."
You see, it's your fault that you believed them when they assured us that two dams could be built for that amount. It's your fault that you believed them when they assured you before the election that federal money would be available, even after KOTV reported that it might not be available.
It's your fault that you believed them when they assured you, before and after the Vision 2025 election, that even if there wasn't any matching money from the feds, there would be more than enough excess sales tax collections to make up the difference.
It's your fault that you believed the official Vision 2025 project map, which showed two low-water dams in the list of projects, without a single asterisk or weasel word.
Our Founding Fathers, who dumped tea in Boston Harbor to protest taxation without representation, would be appalled at how sheeplike we are, willing to be taxed twice for the same projects.
It gets worse! Commissioner Fred Perry has put us on notice that we may get taxed a third time, if the new river tax doesn't bring in enough money. He warns, "if the costs exceed the estimate and the contingency, something would be dropped off the plan or projects would be scaled down."
And there's reason to think that is a likely prospect. Since we haven't even submitted a plan to the Corps of Engineers for approval, we can't know accurately how much these projects will actually cost. And based on the County's own revenue projections, the proposed tax will barely raise $280 million over seven years, not even enough to cover the stated project and contingency total of $282.25 million.
It appears that the County Commissioners have made no room in their budget for interest and fees on the bonds that will be issued against future tax revenues, which increases the likelihood that one or more projects will be dropped or scaled severely back. The contingency might cover those finance costs, but then that money wouldn't be available for its original purpose (covering unexpected cost increases) or, as Commissioner Randi Miller has suggested, for operation and maintenance costs.
When you look behind the pretty TV ads, the reality of the Tulsa County sales tax increase for river projects is a poorly planned mess promoted by officials who feel no obligation to keep promises made to the voters.
As voters, we can and should choose to send it back to the drawing board on October 9.
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