I had hoped that by now I'd be able to issue a resounding endorsement of the $500 million City of Tulsa streets package. But I have to be persuaded before I can try to persuade anyone else.
Believe it or not, I don't relish being a naysayer, but I do feel obliged to speak out against proposals that increase the tax burden to pay for non-necessities.
In this case, there's not much of an increase in the tax burden. If Proposition 1 passes, the overall sales tax rate will continue at the same level until 2014, by extending the current Third Penny sales tax and adding a 1/6 cent tax when Tulsa County's "Four to Fix the County" tax expires at the end of September 2011.
If Proposition 2 passes, funding for a $285 million general obligation bond issue will boost Tulsa property taxes by about $55 per year on a $100,000 home.
And there's no dispute that street improvements are a necessity. Our streets are in terrible condition, and despite spending hundreds of millions on street improvements over the last quarter-century, we seem to be falling further and further behind.
According to former Streets Commissioner Jim Hewgley, that's because Tulsa shifted emphasis away from preventive maintenance and toward complete reconstruction of streets.
Proper routine and preventive maintenance--including crack sealing, milling and overlay, and permanent patching--can extend the life of a street by limiting the damage that caused by Tulsa's volatile winter climate.
The big question is whether this package represents a change in philosophy for the Tulsa Public Works Department (TPWD), or whether they intend to continue along the same path that brought about the current state of our streets.
The 12-year, $2 billion package, initially approved by the City Council in August, included a substantial expansion of TPWD's preventive maintenance and repair program. The 12-year "Papa Bear" plan would have added 20 permanent repair crews, increasing productivity by a factor of 18.
Papa Bear also would have added a dedicated milling crew (grinding down the surface asphalt), a dedicated overlay crew (applying a new layer of asphalt), and two dedicated sealing crews -- none of which TPWD currently has.
The 12-year plan was designed to take the city's streets to a pavement condition index (PCI) of 70, up from the current level of about 60.
A week after the Council approved the 12-year plan by a 5-4 vote, the matter was brought back up for reconsideration and the five-year, $451 million "Mama Bear" plan backed by Mayor Kathy Taylor was approved in its place, by the same 5-4 margin, with District 6 Councilor Dennis Troyer switching sides.
A shorter, less expensive package makes some political sense. There's less danger of sticker shock, and voters won't feel that they're locking up all available revenues for the next 12 years. After five years, voters could evaluate TPWD's performance and decide whether or not to continue along the same course.
You might expect that backers of the 12-year plan would also support this more modest plan, but that's not the case. Three councilors who pushed for the Papa Bear plan--Bill Martinson, Rick Westcott, and John Eagleton--aren't endorsing the plan on the ballot. (The fourth councilor who endorsed Papa Bear, Eric Gomez, is supporting passage of the two ballot propositions.)
Eagleton says, "The five-year plan should be defeated because it doesn't actually fix the streets." The PCI would only go up by two points, boosting arterial streets from 60 to 62 and neighborhood streets from 58 to 60.
Eagleton points out that the five-year plan would increase the city's deferred maintenance backlog, starving non-street departments of capital expenditures until 2014.
(The 12-year plan included money for these other capital items.) He also estimates that Tulsans will pay a 20 percent premium by breaking the 12-year-plan into multiple phases.
The most serious criticism is the claim that the five-year-plan includes no money for a paving program but continues the overemphasis on full reconstructions of streets.
There isn't a detailed breakdown available for the five-year plan, but the documentation I've seen shows $40.8 million for routine and preventive street maintenance. The package is heavily weighted toward full-fledged street reconstruction.
The Papa Bear plan had $15.6 million for routine and preventive maintenance over the first five years. But the plan included an additional $60 million specifically for crack sealing, patching, milling, and overlay during that same period. Altogether, that's nearly twice as much as the Mama Bear plan would spend.
The plan on the November ballot doesn't have dedicated spending for those types of street maintenance, as far as I can tell from the information that has been made public. Some critics fear that the absence of specific line items for (e.g.) milling and overlay means that there's no money in the plan for milling and overlay.
There's also doubt about how soon increased preventive maintenance spending would begin--right away or not for a few years, until the current Third Penny is fully funded, projected to be sometime in early 2013. Because maintenance can't be funded by bond issue money, but must be funded by sales tax; that's an important question.
The lack of a specific breakdown may reflect the haste with which the shorter plan was put together. If the proponents will publish a detailed breakdown of their year-by-year spending plan, perhaps with a side-by-side, apples-to-apples comparison to the 12-year-plan, they might be able to answer objections and calm fears.
I'm hopeful that, between now and the election, I'll get enough information that I'll be able to make a compelling case to vote for Propositions 1 and 2. But that compelling case should include a compelling amount of money in the very near future for preventive maintenance and basic repairs, so that our streets don't get worse before they get better.
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