Last Thursday night, the Tulsa City Council unanimously passed a resolution urging Mayor Kathy Taylor to move forward with the use of available tools and resources to encourage commercial development along the west bank of the Arkansas River.
The resolution was sponsored by Council Chairman Roscoe Turner, an opponent of the county river sales tax increase, and it united his fellow tax skeptics John Eagleton and Jack Henderson with the three councilors who endorsed the tax hike (Carter, Christiansen, and Westcott), and those who took no public position (Barnes, Martinson, Troyer).
So now development of Tulsa's riverfront is back where we could have been three months ago, were it not for the push to pass a county sales tax increase. In fact, the city could have been at this point almost a year ago, when HCW first expressed enthusiasm for developing the west bank.
As my friend Gwen Freeman of 1170 KFAQ put it, "We had a very expensive and long detour, and now we're back on the highway and headed in the right direction again."
But as often happens in real life, there was some attractive scenery on this detour. Some of the good that came out of the vote:
1. The debate over the river tax prompted people to take a closer look at the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan (ARCMP), completed by INCOG two years ago with considerable public input.
2. There was a public debate about priorities for public spending.
3. Overdue attention was given to the fact that county sales tax increases limit the options for municipal governments trying to fund basic services and infrastructure.
4. Tulsa County voters displayed the sophistication to resist the emotional appeals of the most expensive and over-engineered ad campaign in local tax election history.
5. We saw public officials like Councilors Turner, Henderson, and Eagleton and County Assessor Ken Yazel display political courage in the face of intense behind-the-scenes pressure to jump on the vote yes bandwagon.
But the most heartwarming sight of the campaign was at the No River Tax watch party at Sadie's Coffee House, an internet café and jazz venue in the old Northland Shopping Center on 36th St. N. between Cincinnati and Peoria Aves.
On election night at Sadie's you would have seen blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and progressives, city dwellers and suburbanites, making new acquaintances, cementing new alliances, and "raising the roof" in celebration of their victory.
In promoting the river tax proposal, George Kaiser said he wanted to see "people from all over the metropolitan area, from all geographic areas, from all different economic backgrounds,... gather together and rebuild this sense of community which I think we've lost to some degree." In a way he never intended, Mr. Kaiser succeeded.
Just as the "Gang of Five" brought together city councilors from the overlooked east, west, and north sections of Tulsa, the No River Tax campaign brought inner city neighborhoods and outer subdivisions together over common challenges and concerns--prioritizing public safety and streets and operating and maintaining the park facilities we already own.
Ken Neal of the monopoly daily newspaper would no doubt deride this coalition as a room full of the usual malcontents. In his petulant post-mortem column the Sunday after the vote, Neal sought to marginalize the majority that voted no as unworthy of serious dialogue. Opponents "screamed," were "stirring the pot," "vitriolic, unfair, and accusatory," "yahoos," protesting "slights, real or imagined."
The idea that reasonable people might disagree with the daily paper's perspective is evidently beyond their Ken.
Neal wrote of "great distrust and animosity that the river campaign revealed," and "anger and divisions that the elections laid bare," but he exerts no effort to search out the causes of distrust and animosity.
There is a division in Tulsa County, very evident by studying which precincts approved the tax by the greatest margins. Once again Tulsa's Money Belt provided the strongest support for a sales tax increase for entertainment and recreation.
The Money Belt is the two-mile wide strip that stretches along the uplands from Maple Ridge to Utica Square to Southern Hills then broadens out to encompass the gated communities in the hills of south Tulsa. Take Tulsa's wealthiest precincts out of the results, and the tax would have failed 55-45 in the city limits, and nearly 60-40 county-wide.
The tax didn't just fall short in north Tulsa. It failed in west Tulsa. It failed in east Tulsa, losing in all but two precincts northeast of 61st & Sheridan. It barely passed in several middle-class precincts in the eastern part of midtown.
The decision-makers and movers and shakers who pushed for the sales tax and financed the vote yes campaign seem to be people who largely live their lives within the confines of the Money Belt. They drive through north, east, and west Tulsa and the suburbs to get to the airport or the lakes, but do they know anyone who lives there?
They have a choice to make. They could respond to the defeat by following Ken Neal's lead: Dismiss the opposition to the tax as crankiness that can be overcome next time with better marketing or pork barrel spending.
Or the defeat could be a wakeup call. In the future, the Money Belt could choose to include the rest of Tulsa and Tulsa County as partners in the process of setting priorities.
Councilor Henderson's statement on election night wasn't the demand of a ward boss for tribute, as Neal tried to characterize it, but an appeal on behalf of overlooked constituencies across the city and county: Talk to us before your plans are set in stone; don't just try to sell us on decisions you made without us.
So where do we go from here with the Arkansas River? There are five issues that deserve immediate attention from the City of Tulsa, Tulsa County, and INCOG:
(1) The City Council should push for a west bank Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, encompassing the city's land and the concrete plant.
Setting up a TIF district can be a lengthy process, but it is well-established, with the Tulsa Hills development at 71st and US 75 as a recent precedent.
TIF districts are being used to facilitate the Jenks River District and the Bixby South Village developments, and Tulsa officials ought to study them as models. The reimbursement approach being used in Bixby and Jenks reduces the risk to the cities--the developer spends the money up front and is reimbursed for qualified expenditures as his project generates new tax dollars. If the development doesn't generate new tax dollars, the developer doesn't get reimbursed.
The City Council's resolution last week is the first step in the right direction. Next step is a request for proposals (RFP) from developers, and the Council needs to keep the pressure on the Mayor's office to keep the process moving.
(There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings surrounding TIF districts. I plan to delve into the topic in a future column.)
(2) The County should press on with engineering and permitting on the two new dams and the improvements to Zink Dam, using the Vision 2025 money already set aside for that purpose.
(3) While waiting for permitting to be complete, the County Commission should get a handle on Vision 2025 finances, so it knows what its full range of options are for funding the completion of the dams.
PMg, which oversees Vision 2025 projects for Tulsa County, does an admirable job of tracking expenditures, but my attempts to get answers to financial questions leaves me with the impression that no one at the County Courthouse has the complete financial picture, at least not in a form that lets decision-makers know what their options are for rearranging spending.
The complete picture would include information that doesn't currently appear in the monthly Vision 2025 reports: how much money remains (if any) of the bond proceeds, how much money is in the sales tax reserve fund. Those items, plus revenue projections, would address the income side.
On the expense side, a "spend plan" is needed, setting out, at least on a year-by-year basis, but preferably by quarter or month, what expenditures are already committed, and whether there is any flexibility as to when the expenditure could be made.
With this information in hand, county officials could decide to prioritize spending on the Vision 2025 dams, and move remaining spending on other Vision 2025 projects later, while honoring any spending commitments that have already been made.
(4) INCOG should begin the process of considering the "Living River" for inclusion in the ARCMP, using the process established for The Channels as a model, with technical committees considering various aspects of the proposal.
If the idea makes it through INCOG's scrutiny, they should recommend it to the TMAPC as an amendment to the ARCMP. The TMAPC would then decide whether to recommend it to the County Commission and the City Council for final adoption. Then, and only then, should it be considered for future public funding.
(5) There needs to be some closure on the question of the 41st Street bridge. During the campaign, some vote yes people claimed that the proposed pedestrian-only bridge and park on the east bank at 41st wouldn't preclude a 41st St. traffic bridge at some future date. Others said that the park would preclude a traffic bridge, and that that was a desirable side effect.
I'm concerned we'll wind up with a situation similar to the Creek Turnpike and the six-laning of 71st St.--projects that were on the Major Street and Highway Plan, but no one believed they were really going to be built, so developers built without regard to the plan.
Either a future 41st Street traffic bridge should be reaffirmed (perhaps with restrictions--a height limitation to prevent trucks from using it), or it should be taken off the Major Street and Highway Plan. The question needs to go through the full process for amending the plan, with public comment and public deliberation.
There is a positive, constructive path for making our river happen without raising taxes. Here's hoping the Mayor and County Commissioners follow the City Council down that path.
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