But the Council doesn't seems to mind. Can you say the word "Rubberstamp"?
Thursday night, motivated by a full-court press from Mayor Kathy Taylor, Chamber of Commerce leaders, and the daily paper, but over the objections of many downtown property owners, the Tulsa City Council voted 6-3 to approve an assessment on all property (except Federal and religious uses) within the Inner Dispersal Loop to cover half the cost of a new Driller Stadium at Archer St. and Elgin Ave.
The move of Tulsa's minor league baseball team is good news for downtown, the location is the best choice for generating synergy with existing dining and entertainment options, and a targeted assessment is preferable to a general sales or property tax for stadium construction.
But the way in which the deal was done runs roughshod over the idea of government with the consent of the governed and shows contempt for the legislative branch of government.
For the second time in 15 days, Taylor presented the Council with a done deal and pushed for its acquiescence within 72 hours.
On the Great Plains Airlines lawsuit settlement, the councilors were advised that they were legally constrained to approve paying the settlement negotiated by the Mayor (more like a capitulation than from a settlement) the City's sinking fund and thus indirectly to raise taxes on all property owners in the City of Tulsa.
This time, however, the Council had full discretion, and councilors had good reason to ask for more time to look at the issue.
Taylor first presented them with the details of the assessment on Tuesday, and on Thursday they voted. There was an outpouring of concern from downtown property owners who would see their assessments skyrocket.
The current assessment, put in place 29 years ago to maintain a Main Mall that no longer exists, is graduated, based on proximity to 5th and Main. The money winds up going to fund Downtown Tulsa Unlimited, which provides a variety of downtown maintenance, security, and transportation services. (Whether and how well DTU provides those services is a matter of dispute.)
The new assessment is a flat 6.5 cents per square foot of land area and improvements for every parcel within the Inner Dispersal Loop, except for Federal and religious uses. Although most of the assessment will be used to cover the cost of building the new ballpark, the assessment won't vary with proximity to the park or the assessed value of a parcel.
The Oklahoma Eagle may be seeing the biggest jump of any property owner. Its parcel in the farthest northeastern corner of downtown is currently assessed for $51 a year. The new assessment would be $1,644, according to the daily paper.
You could justify that jump--the Eagle's nest might be farthest from 5th and Main, but it's within a long home run of the new ballpark and could see an increase in value as a result. Still, an extra $1,593 year isn't something a small business can just shrug off.
I took a look at a couple of dozen parcels around downtown to see how the new assessment compared to the property taxes levied on each. In the average case, the assessment was about 16% of the property tax bill, but on individual parcels the assessment was anywhere from a tenth to three times the ad valorem levy.
The Bank of Oklahoma Tower had the lowest ratio of any paid $897,600 in property taxes last year. Its new downtown assessment would be just under $100,000, about 11 percent of its property tax bill.
At the other extreme is the Tulsa Club building at 5th and Cincinnati. The neglected Art Deco gem only pays $2,106 a year in property taxes, but its Drillers Stadium assessment would be $6,732. That's a lot more money for a building that is not generating any income for its owner.
It could be argued that this per square footage assessment creates an incentive for landowners to find ways to make their properties productive. That could be a good thing, considering how many downtown owners seem to be sitting on their properties waiting for the perfect deal to come along.
But my fear is that it creates a perverse incentive to minimize the assessment, easily done by reducing the number of square feet subject to tax. Absentee owner C. J. Morony could knock 90 percent off of the Tulsa Club's bill by knocking down the building. The remaining $683 would be easily generated by converting the land to surface parking.
That would not be a desirable outcome. We have enough forces facilitating the undevelopment of downtown and the destruction of historic buildings; we don't need another push in that direction.
A provision to freeze the square footage number used for the assessment at current levels would have been a safeguard against encouraging demolition and discouraging new development.
The assessment is about as regressive as it can be, with less valuable properties being assessed for a higher proportion of value than downtown's priciest properties.
Some of the hardest hit are just barely within the Inner Dispersal Loop, about as far as you can be from the planned ballpark.
The Better Price warehouse and surrounding properties on the east side of Frankfort between 11th and 13th in the Elm Park subdivision (aka Gunboat Park) incur an annual ad valorem tax of $7,875. Its Drillers assessment would be almost as high--about $7,000 by my calculations. Will the Better Price folks get as much value out of a new ballpark a mile from their buildings as they get out of all the services funded by their property taxes?
Properties with a homestead exemption are excluded from the assessment, but that doesn't exclude the many rentals within the IDL. Alves Properties has renovated several apartment buildings in Gunboat Park. Property tax for their six properties in that neighborhood is $5,502. The Drillers assessment would be $4,500. That extra cost has to be passed along to tenants.
The general taxpaying public doesn't escape either. While Federal properties are exempt, state and local properties aren't. The City of Tulsa will owe $217,736.60 annually on its downtown properties, according to an estimate prepared by mayoral economic adviser Mike Bunney. County taxpayers are on the hook for about $138,000 a year. That's not counting land owned by various city and county trust authorities.
Some of its defenders justify the new assessment scheme based on the increase in property value induced by the park's presence. In that case, why didn't Mayor Taylor consider financing the ballpark by reworking existing tax-increment finance (TIF) districts to capture the resulting rise in property and sales tax revenues expected in the stadium's vicinity?
Even if the assessment formula is the best possible, the Council should have insisted on sufficient time to examine the proposal and to look at alternatives that might have allayed public objections.
The Mayor should have more respect for the legislative role of the City Council, but the Council has to insist on that respect by taking the time it needs for due diligence.
The public needs more time, too, when higher taxes are on the agenda. We may need a City Charter amendment that requires a waiting period--say, 30 days--between the announcement of a proposed legal settlement or a proposed assessment and the final vote on its enactment.
(Another charter change that ought to be considered: Any legal settlement above a certain percentage of the sinking fund ought to have City Council approval before being presented to the court.)
I appreciate the courage and diligence of Councilors Rick Westcott, Bill Martinson, and John Eagleton for insisting on sufficient time to hear from those affected by the assessment and to weigh alternative methods to accomplish the aim of bringing the Drillers downtown.
Their colleagues ought to have done them the courtesy of supporting their desire for an additional week of scrutiny and deliberation, even if they themselves felt ready to vote. That's especially true for the three Republicans--Gomez, Christiansen and Bynum--who voted yes: They ought to appreciate the impact that increasing the tax burden has on small business.
Still, it's hard to say no in the face of heavy pressure from the mayor, the daily paper, and Chamber of Commerce leaders. Those calling for careful examination of the issue were trashed for their trouble.
The daily's cartoonist depicted Bill Martinson as a streaker disrupting a baseball game, implying that the councilor's only motive for delaying the decision was political exhibitionism, rather than his characteristic fiscal caution and analytical approach to these sorts of decisions.
While institutional self-respect can be overdone, the City Council doesn't seem to have any at the moment. Checks and balances don't work when one branch of government submits like a kicked puppy.
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