Have you ever wondered why tax rates keep going up, while government delivers less and less every year?
A while back I found this intriguing tidbit in the June 1957 issue of Reader's Digest (condensed from the previous month's issue of National Municipal Review):
"One of the cities working hardest at its beauty program is Tulsa, Okla., (...) which, although it is a growing industrial community, has already started calling itself 'America's Most Beautiful City.'
"Located on the Arkansas River at the foot of the Osage hills, Tulsa enjoys a beautiful natural setting. It is a young city (Oklahoma as a state will be just 50 years old in November), and so has few run-down sections. Its light industries are fueled by gas, hence there is no smoke to darken its clear blue skies or begrime its modern buildings and tree-lined streets. Not only are the streets washed down every night but gutters are regularly scrubbed by hand." (Emphasis added.)
It seems reasonable to assume that if city government had money and manpower to scrub the gutters by hand, they were managing to keep the streets in good repair, too. And Tulsa managed all this without a sales tax.
In the succeeding 51 years, Tulsa's sales tax rate has gone from zero to three percent, and yet we can't keep the streets in good condition, much less washed on a nightly basis.
What's changed in 50 years? There are a few clues in that Reader's Digest excerpt. Tulsa was still a young city in 1957. Everything is 51 years older.
According to the Chamber of Commerce, in 1957, Tulsa had an estimated population of 254,100 packed into 41 square miles, with 562 miles of paved streets.
In 2007, Tulsa's estimated population was 384,037, about half again larger than a half-century before, but spread out over four times the area, 187 sq. mi. The city has close to 5,000 lane-miles of streets. Miles to lane-miles isn't a direct comparison, but it seems reasonable to think the number of lane miles has grown twice as fast as the city's population.
Spread out as we are, the streets get more wear and tear than they would have 50 years ago. In 1957, we managed with fewer police officers and fire fighters -- they had much less area to cover.
However we got here, we can't keep up with street maintenance despite spending billions on capital improvements since the "Third Penny" was instituted in 1980.
After a year of studying the streets issue, we have a consensus that something needs to be done but no consensus on the best approach.
We're coming up to the deadline for putting a sales tax and bond issue on the November general election ballot.
Last week the City Council voted 5-4 in support of Councilor G. T. Bynum's proposal to put two proposals on the ballot: Councilor Bill Martinson's $2 billion, 12-year plan (aka "Papa Bear") and Mayor Kathy Taylor's $451 million, five-year plan (aka "Mama Bear").
Bynum's idea was backed by Bill Christiansen (who had proposed an even smaller four-year plan), Jack Henderson, and David Patrick. After seeming to be in suspended animation for an eternity, at the end of the roll call, Dennis Troyer cast the deciding vote in favor.
Councilors backing the Papa Bear plan voted against the dueling ballot propositions: Bill Martinson, John Eagleton, Rick Westcott, and Eric Gomez.
This was not the final vote on the matter. After the Bynum amendment passed, Council attorney Drew Rees advised putting a hold on the main question until the following week, so that the legal details can be worked out.
Papa Bear package supporters point out that the plan will bring the Pavement Condition Index (PCI) up by 10 points, and that the Mama Bear plan only brings it up by one point for arterials and two points for non-arterials.
Mama Bear backers counter that both plans will produce the same PCI after five years.
Because Papa Bear is a 12-year plan, it includes a certain amount of money -- about $240 million -- for non-street projects, plus money for street widening ($120 million) and buses (about $29 million). These are projects that would normally be included in renewal of the Third Penny, but the Third Penny is one of the funding sources for the streets plan.
Both packages leave the overall sales tax rate at the same level, calling dibs on the County's one-sixth cent "Four to Fix" tax when it expires in September 2011. Papa Bear lasts long enough to grab the County's six-tenths of a cent "Vision 2025" sales tax when it expires in December 2016. Property taxes would go up by three mills -- about $30 a year on a $100,000 home.
Papa Bear supporters are worried about clouding the debate by offering two choices to the voters. Because a sales tax and a general obligation bond issue must be separate questions on the ballot, offering the voters a choice would put four separate questions on the ballot. What happens if voters approve incompatible ballot items? What if confused voters vote against all of them? How do you run a campaign that might require voters to vote yes on two items and no on two items to achieve the desired outcome?
Supporters of giving voters a choice between plans say that the electorate is intelligent enough to handle it. There's concern that voters will balk at a $2 billion plan, and they should have a better option than to just say no.
I rather like the idea of having a debate over the two options and leaving the choice to the voters. I'm sure there's a way to structure the ballot to make the choices clear and to avoid any ambiguous or conflicting outcomes.
Mayor Taylor, the heads of city departments, and the daily's editorial board all seem to be pushing for the smaller plan. They say the longer plan would make it harder to allocate money for other city priorities, harder to react to changed circumstances or cost fluctuations.
To my mind that's an argument in favor of the 12-year plan. We'd be locking in basic infrastructure as our highest priority. We'd be less likely to go along with a tax increase for frills. In a real emergency, we could reallocate funds for other purposes, but it would take a real emergency to produce the political will to take that money away from the streets.
An argument against Papa Bear is that we're updating Tulsa's comprehensive plan, a process that may identify new roads that need to be built and reprioritize capital improvements. How do we implement the comprehensive plan if the money is tied up for 12 years?
Lack of confidence in the city's Public Works Department (TPWD) is an obstacle to passage of any streets package, no matter how small. Taxpayers want some reassurance before they provide more funding that it will be spent efficiently.
When Tulsans see how long it took and how much it cost to turn Boston Ave. downtown to a two-way street, they wonder why the city didn't just restripe the street and put up some more traffic lights. When Tulsans see problems with the concrete pavers only recently installed on Peoria in Brookside, they wonder how many more miles of streets we could repair if it weren't for all the frilly add-ons to many of our street projects.
Everyone seems to have a Public Works story that raises questions about its paving practices and contracting procedures. I seem to hear a new one every week.
Calls for an outside audit of TPWD began several years ago with then-Councilor Jim Mautino, himself a collector of TPWD anecdotes.
When the current City Council brought up the idea of an outside audit back in June, TPWD Director Charles Hardt responded defensively, telling those who want such a review that they should just "hire a head hunter or a witch hunter and get on with it." But his alternative--a "self-audit"--isn't likely to build public confidence in his department.
The lack of financial detail in these proposals has me nervous. When I saw that exactly $390.6 million was allocated for street operations over 12 years, I wondered how they arrived at that number, which included street milling and paving, graffiti abatement, crack and joint sealing, snow and ice removal, and mowing, among other things, but didn't break down the costs to that level.
There had to be some basis for that estimate, so I asked, and I was sent a spreadsheet, which breaks operations down into subcategories and by year.
The spreadsheet is filled with numbers that must come from somewhere, but it's hard to tell where. An accompanying document provides an annual estimate of cost and some basis, in terms of personnel and material, for each category of street operations, but the numbers in that document don't match the numbers in the spreadsheet.
It is not clear, from the information I've been provided, just what we're going to get for the money we'll be entrusting to the Public Works Department.
That makes it hard for me to support dumping a huge pot of money in their laps without any opportunity to revisit the decision for 12 years.
The most important thing is this: We need to start doing the street maintenance that we haven't been doing. We've been rebuilding streets like crazy, but paving and crack sealing and repairs have gone wanting.
The lion's share of the money in the Papa Bear plan will go to rebuilding streets from the dirt up. (I haven't seen details on Mayor Taylor's compromise plan.) Only $180 million (about $15 million a year) will go to street repair: crack & joint sealing, street milling and overlay, permanent patching.
Former Street Commissioner Jim Hewgley's idea looks more and more appealing: Pass a bond issue and use it to fund some street construction projects currently funded with Third Penny money. That would free up sales tax money right away that can be used to fund repair crews. It's something we should have done much earlier this year, so we could begin protecting streets against further damage this coming winter.
As Hewgley says, if street rebuilding is the solution, why are people angry about the condition of the streets, when Tulsa has been focused on rebuilding for the last decade and a half?
We know we need better streets, and it appears that the only way we will get them is to dedicate nearly all available revenue for a long time to fixing them. I will likely vote for whichever package is put on the ballot.
I'd feel much better supporting a package that targets the critical problem and is short term enough to let us see if the Public Works Department has changed its ways.
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