Thirty years ago, Tulsans were as exercised over the condition of the streets as they are today. A frequent candidate for streets commissioner began his daily radio commentary on KXXO with "I'm Vince Sposato, and I'm mad as hell." KOTV ran a regular "Chughole of the Week" report, illustrating the immensity of these craters by filling them with wind-up Godzillas, a grand piano, and the TU Men's Chorus, among other creative props.
The city commissioner who found a way to fix and widen Tulsa's streets in the late '70s and early '80s has watched the condition of those streets decline and public outcry increase in recent years. He has developed a plan that would, for a modest property tax increase, provide immediate funds to reinstitute a neglected practice that would improve the quality and lifespan of our streets.
Meanwhile, a city councilor with a mind for numbers has put pencil to paper, drafting a plan that would provide a billion and a half dollars for street improvements over a 10-year period.
Together, the two outside-the-box approaches would provide for near and long-term street repair, rehabilitation, and reconstruction, but without imposing a significant tax increase on Tulsa residents.
A couple of weeks ago, City Councilor Bill Martinson announced his "Back to Basics" approach to funding street improvements. The plan would raise $1.6 billion over ten years to improve Tulsa streets, arterial and non-arterial alike, bringing them up to a pavement condition index of at least 70, while still including funds for key street expansion projects and other priority capital needs.
Martinson would do this without increasing the overall sales tax burden on Tulsa residents and without imposing development impact fees, a city fuel tax, street assessment districts, or tolls.
The only tax increase in the Martinson plan would raise the property tax rate for city residents by about 3.3 mills--$33 per year on a home valued at $100,000.
Contrast the fiscal impact of Martinson's plan with that of Mayor Kathy Taylor's "Complete Our Streets" task force, headed by former Councilor Dewey Bartlett Jr. and Sharon King Davis. Taylor's committee also identified a need of $1.6 billion, but they plan to fund it with a permanent half-cent sales tax earmarked to the Public Works department (not exclusively to streets) and a 15 mill property tax increase--an extra $150 a year on that $100,000 house.
How does Martinson's plan manage to meet the fiscal target without a massive tax increase? It refocuses several existing revenue streams on street repair, rehabilitation, and reconstruction--back to basics. As existing city and county taxes expire, Martinson would have the city pass taxes for the equivalent amount but dedicated to city streets.
So after the current Third Penny ends in 2012, the new Third Penny would provide $78 million a year for streets. When the 2005 general obligation bond issue is paid off, a new bond issue would be passed, keeping the property tax millage the same, but dedicating the revenue to long-term capital street projects.
When Tulsa County's sixth-of-a-cent Four-to-Fix-The-County-Again tax expires in 2011, the City would enact the same tax rate for streets. The same thing would happen in 2017, when Tulsa County's 0.6 percent Vision 2025 tax expires.
City of Tulsa residents could vote any time, even this year, to approve city sales taxes for streets that would go into effect on the expiration of the two county sales taxes, calling dibs on that share of the sales tax burden before Tulsa County can extend its claim.
The plan also might require some utility rate increases. Some capital improvement costs for city utilities are funded by the Third Penny sales tax; Martinson would roll those costs into the overall cost of operating the utilities, freeing up Third Penny money for streets. One beneficial side effect of this approach is that in-city and out-of-city utility customers alike would share in the full cost of operating and maintaining the utility.
The chief deficiency of Martinson's plan is that, while it addresses long-term street maintenance, it doesn't provide any new money until 2010, so it doesn't meet the urgent need to halt and reverse the deterioration of the streets.
That's where Jim Hewgley's plan comes in.
In the Meantime
Hewgley was City of Tulsa Commissioner of Streets and Public Property from 1978 to 1984. He was also one of the creators of the Third Penny sales tax for capital improvements.
(The Third Penny was devised in part to reduce the city's overdependence on property tax. Late '70s inflation quickly drove up the cost of projects funded by general obligation bond issues but without a corresponding increase in tax revenue. Today the problem is reversed--the city is too dependent on sales tax, which fluctuates with the fortunes of the local retail sector.)
With a popular mandate to fix the streets and guided by Jim Carpenter, the department's street expert, Hewgley's Streets Department caught up on arterial paving during his six years in office, paving more miles and laying down more tons of asphalt than at any time before or since.
Paving, Hewgley says, is what Tulsa hasn't been doing enough of since he left office. While a token amount for paving has been included in each Third Penny package since 1985, Hewgley says it isn't sufficient to meet the need.
When Hewgley speaks of paving, he's speaking of something different than the down-to-the-dirt street rebuilds that are the standard practice for Tulsa's Public Works department. While total rebuilds are necessary from time to time, regular repaving is required in order for those rebuilt streets to last as long as possible.
Paving involves grinding off any existing asphalt overlay, patching the underlying concrete and sealing any cracks, and then covering the concrete with a new two-to-three-inch-thick asphalt overlay that should last seven to nine years.
Between repavings, prompt sealing of any cracks that develop can prevent moisture from infiltrating a road and causing more damage during the multiple freeze/thaw cycles Tulsa goes through each winter.
Because paving and crack sealing involve maintenance of an existing asset, rather than construction of a long-term capital improvement, they can't be paid for with general obligation bond issue money. You have to pay for these activities with sales tax.
Hewgley believes we need an aggressive paving program to begin right away, and that will require freeing up sales tax money to make it happen. He believes that $10 million annually would fund as much paving work as Tulsa could reasonably manage each year. (Availability of contractors and the willingness of Tulsans to endure street closings are factors that limit how much we could spend each year.)
Ten million dollars, enough to fund the first year, is already set aside for street repair and crack sealing in the 2006 Third Penny package. Hewgley advises allocating all $10 million for this year's paving program, prioritizing its funding over other Third Penny projects.
To make room in the sales tax budget to continue the paving program in subsequent years, Hewgley recommends taking $100 million in capital improvements that are currently funded in the Third Penny and funding them as part of a new general obligation bond issue. The Council could then amend Title 43-F to reallocate that $100 million to fund $10 million a year of paving and crack sealing for the next decade. (Title 43-F is the 2006 Sales Tax Expenditure Policy, aka the Brown Ordinance, so called to honor Darven Brown, who devised the Third Penny lockbox.)
At a time when rising prices and a falling dollar are causing families to tighten their belts and reprioritize their budgets, it's heartening to know that there are city councilors like Bill Martinson who are taking the same back-to-basics approach. We need more public servants who will strive to make the best use of the money we're already giving them before asking us for more.
The City Council should give first consideration to Martinson's plan, in conjunction with Hewgley's approach for funding street paving. The massive-tax-increase approach recommended by Taylor's commission should only be considered as a last resort.
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