In December, Mayor Kathy Taylor made a list, checked it twice and wished for 50 presents for the City of Tulsa. She won't get an answer until at least late January, but if President-elect Barack Obama and lawmakers in Washington come through, Christmas could come early in 2009, bringing infrastructure improvements and thousands of new jobs to Tulsa.
A top priority for Obama's first days in office is to pass an economic stimulus package that Washington insiders say could total as much as $850 billion, with at least $350 billion spent on infrastructure projects. The U.S. Conference of Mayors responded to Obama's objective on Dec. 8, proposing a list of 11,400 projects in 427 cities, which would cost $73.2 billion and create more than 847,000 jobs. Tulsa's 50 items, which Taylor said could all begin immediately, would cost more than $725 million and be expected to create more than 3,000 jobs.
Some Tulsa City Councilors have taken issue with Taylor's list, however, and said they should have been included in the list-making process rather than finding out about it through the media. City Council Chair John Eagleton said that on a scale of 1-10, the need to consult with the council before releasing the list was a 10, but he was not surprised the mayor did not do so.
"When I walk the neighborhoods and talk to my constituents, I have a better feel for what they're thinking than somebody who sits at City Hall and pushes papers all day or is spending much of their time in other places," he said. "I was unaware that this was being compiled and I was not surprised that the list was submitted without consulting anyone on council, as far as I know . . . I've grown to expect to that."
Councilor Rick Westcott added during a City Council committee meeting Dec. 16 that "as the citizens' direct representatives," the councilors should have been involved in creating the list. Those comments earned Westcott and his fellow councilors the ridicule of the Tulsa World, which said in an editorial three days later, "Someone get the City Council a hankie."
"Councilors are dewy-eyed because the mayor won't ask them to sign off on her every move before she makes it," the Tulsa World wrote. "Here's a key point from the charter: 'The Mayor shall be the chief executive and administrative officer of the city and shall ... identify the needs and establish the objectives and priorities of the city and make recommendations to the council for meeting the needs and achieving the objectives.' ...
"If Westcott has a problem with that, he has two choices: 1. Propose a city charter change that empowers the council to make all the decisions or 2. Run for mayor."
Councilor Bill Martinson said he does not know why the mayor garners such support from the Tulsa World, but he said it is nothing new.
"The mayor's hiding behind the skirts of the Tulsa World editorial board and has for some time," he said. "I can tell you the Tulsa World editorial board does absolutely minimal research, if any research, on any topic that they write on."
Wants versus Needs
The city's chief economic development officer, G.M. "Mike" Bunney, told the councilors that compiling the original list was "a very fast-moving situation" and that the mayor's office had planned to work through the list with the councilors after it was released. Taylor's chief of staff, Amy Polonchek, stressed that the Dec. 9 release was only a preliminary list, with the U.S. Conference of Mayors planning revised releases before Obama takes office. Taylor, Bunney and Polonchek met with Martinson, Westcott and Councilor G.T. Bynum on Dec. 23 to begin work on the list, which the councilors said needs to be pared down considerably and prioritized.
"I guess it gets down to negotiation strategy, if you want to call it that," said Westcott, who is an insurance attorney. "I participate in settlement negotiations all the time and . . . I always try to negotiate from a reasonable position. If it's the mayor's intention to ask for an exorbitant amount of money, fully intending to settle for something less all the time, I'm not sure that's the way to go about it. I think the citizens would be better served if the mayor would have a discussion with the council and try to reach some sort of consensus."
Bynum, who worked for six years on the staffs of U.S. Sens. Don Nickles and Tom Coburn, also said the list was too long and added that it should be prioritized with the most important items at the top.
"When I worked [in Washington] and was handling appropriations, we would have cities come in with laundry lists of stuff," he said. "You've got to have a focus to what you're asking for -- not just ask for everything under the sun and then expect someone else to decide what's most important to you."
Polonchek said Taylor's administration agreed there was a need to strategize and create a smaller, more focused list by Jan. 7, when the U.S. Conference of Mayors had asked for a revised list of projects. She said Taylor's staff would dig deeper into each project and look at the city's priorities, and would seek input from officials for Tulsa Public Schools, Tulsa County, neighboring towns and other regional partners.
Bynum added that his experience in Washington gave him insight into which projects are likely to get funding, and some of the Tulsa projects "don't pass the smell test." For instance, Taylor requested $3.6 million to dredge six lakes and $10.5 million for pool renovations. She also asked for $3.3 million to build 10 water playgrounds.
"Typically, [the test] is, 'Does a project merit having some guy who pays taxes in another state pay for this project?'" Bynum said. "In other words, is it in the national interest?"
First Things First
Tulsa items that benefit the national interest, Bynum said, are those that are part of the national infrastructure, such as needed repairs at Tulsa International Airport and dredging of the channel at the Port of Catoosa. Neither item was on Taylor's original list, but three airport projects totaling $5.7 million made it onto a revised list released Dec. 19. Bynum, as well as Martinson, Westcott and Eagleton, also said requests for money for street repairs would be appropriate.
"I can't imagine streets being anything other than at the top of the list," Martinson said. "The package that was passed [in November] will be woefully inadequate to meet our needs, despite what the voters were told."
Tulsa voters on Nov. 4 approved the allocation of $451.6 million to repair city streets during the next five years. Martinson, Eagleton and Westcott as well as Councilor Eric Gomez opposed the proposal, saying $2 billion should be spent on street repairs and maintenance during the next 12 years.
Aside from streets, Martinson said his top priority is improving Tulsa's mass transit system, while Westcott called for a $2 million study to assess the feasibility of a commuter rail system and would like to see Amtrak extended from Oklahoma City to Tulsa.
Westcott also pointed out some specific projects that did not belong on the list. He said two youth job-training initiatives were not appropriate for the stimulus package because they are "obviously not infrastructure."
Additionally, Taylor asked for $54 million for a "strategic property acquisition" of the Page Belcher Federal Building and Post Office downtown, so the building could then be sold to a private developer who would build a hotel. Westcott said the building does not need to be replaced and the federal government does not need to incur the expense of constructing a new building.
He added that there were "about a half dozen" projects on the list that have already been funded or approved for funding through the 3rd penny sales tax or through a general obligation bond. Among those is a $12 million request from Taylor to fund the demolition and reconstruction of the Boulder Avenue bridge.
"If there's already funding approved, why are we going to the federal government for that?" Westcott asked Polonchek at the councilors' Dec. 23 meeting with the mayor and her staff. "Amy's response was, 'If we can get federal funding for those projects, we can reallocate the 3rd penny or [general obligation bond] money for something else.'
"Technically she's correct," Westcott said. "But I kind of have a philosophical problem with it."
On Dec. 19, four days before councilors met with the mayor and her staff to discuss the list, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a revised list, which had expanded the participation to 641 cities and asked for $96.6 billion. The Tulsa list, however, had been reduced to 47 items totaling about $577 million. The most notable omission from that list was a $115 million project to build a toll bridge over the Arkansas River near E. 121st Street and S. Yale Avenue.
Building a bridge to connect South Tulsa with Jenks was proposed several years ago, but plans to route traffic up S. Yale Avenue upset neighborhood residents, who formed the South Tulsa Citizens Coalition to oppose the bridge project. While running for mayor in 2006, Taylor promised to oppose any bridge proposal that would route traffic to S. Yale Avenue.
City Councilor Bill Christiansen, whose district includes the proposed bridge site, said a bridge will be needed in that area one day, but the traffic, which will include many trucks, should be routed to Riverside Parkway. He added that the parkway should be widened from a two-lane road to a four-lane road with a median and turn lanes.
"The majority of the traffic will be going up that way anyway, and we really want to leave S. Yale Avenue from [Creek] Turnpike to 121st Street exactly as it is today," he said, noting that the area is residential and includes Jenks Southeast Elementary School near E. 103rd Street and S. Yale Avenue.
Christiansen said he was surprised to see the project on Taylor's list of "shovel-ready" items that could be started immediately, "especially with her not contacting me about it." Taylor did discuss the project with Christiansen after the list was made public.
"She said it was one of those projects that was fundamentally ready to go and she had a short window to get it back to [the U.S. Conference of Mayors]," he said. "She took a lot of heat for it and then took it off."
Polonchek said the bridge was pulled from the list of potential projects for the stimulus package because the mayor and her staff realized the project is not shovel-ready.
"It's just too preliminary. There's more work to be done on that in terms of engineering work and partnership work," she said.
It may also be too preliminary to count on any federal infrastructure investment in Tulsa, because the economic stimulus package could look very different before it's passed or could conceivably not get passed at all. But Polonchek said she is "very confident" a stimulus package including infrastructure expenditures will make it to the president's desk.
"We've been on conference calls with the Obama administration and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and they've been working up on Capitol Hill, and it looks very positive for the cities and the states," she said.
Vice President-elect Joe Biden told reporters Dec. 23 that negotiations with leaders in the Democrat-controlled Senate and House of Representatives were nearing agreement on a stimulus package. Biden did not discuss specifics, but some Washington officials have estimated the package could cost taxpayers as much as $675 billion to $850 billion, though much of that would likely be spent on items other than infrastructure.
"It's clear that we're all on the same page, including our Republican colleagues," Biden said. "We're getting very close to an overall number and the nature of the investments we're going to be making."
Westcott, however, said it's too early to count on a huge federal investment.
"I think that with the Democratic Congress and Democratic president, and given the current sate of the economy, I think there will be an attempt to do something like this to stimulate the economy, but I'm not sure if the program will be as extensive as a lot of people think it will be," he said.
Congress reconvened Jan. 6, and Obama is set to take office Jan. 20.
Bynum said that if a stimulus package is approved, Tulsa should depend on Rep. John Sullivan and Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn -- not on the U.S. Conference of Mayors or any other lobbyist -- to help get Tulsa projects included in the package.
"We're talking a lot about what the mayor thinks and what the City Council thinks, but Congressman Sullivan ought to be in the loop about this, and Sen. Inhofe and Sen. Coburn should be in the loop on this too," he said. "The members of our delegation are our best avenue in Washington. . . . The U.S. Conference of Mayors is not going to go to bat for the City of Tulsa."
Polonchek said Taylor has had conversations with Tulsa's Washington delegation about the proposed projects and has received several suggestions, though Polonchek did not know the details of those discussions.
Tulsa was one of seven Oklahoma cities that included projects in the Dec. 19 release from the U.S. Conference of Mayors: Edmond asked for $10 million for a road project; Moore requested $13.6 million for four road projects; Muskogee is seeking $31.5 million for a housing program and an upgrade of a water treatment plant; Norman asked for $86 million for four Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) projects, two energy projects, one public safety initiative, five road projects, two transit items and six water-related upgrades; Oklahoma City's list called for about $473 million to support 11 airport projects, 12 CDBG items, three energy upgrades, two public safety projects, eight school initiatives, 37 road projects, five transit items and 20 water-related projects; Ponca City is hoping for $27.13 million to address six CDBG projects; Sand Springs' wish list totaled $13.6 million for 14 road projects and seven water-related projects; and
Tulsa's tally on Dec. 19 was about $577 million for three airport upgrades, four CDBG initiatives, one energy project, two housing initiatives, 20 public safety items, one school property acquisition, four road projects, nine transit items and three water-related projects.
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