Rather than shrink from the tough decisions the next city budget process is likely to require on the part of the mayor and City Council, District 7 Councilor John Eagleton is taking a more head-on approach to the issue.
"I perceive it as an opportunity," he said, pausing for dramatic effect before adding, "much like stepping into the ring with Mike Tyson for a middle-aged man."
Given the pitched battle that took place between Mayor Kathy Taylor and some members of the council last June in regard to the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, prospects for a smooth budgeting process for FY2011 do not appear bright. Many observers are already warning that because of the lingering recession and a corresponding decline in sales tax revenue, the budget-balancing options facing the mayor and council by next summer will be even less appealing than they were last June, when utility rates were increased, 96 city government positions were eliminated and the remaining 4,000 city workers were forced to take eight furlough days over the course of the fiscal year.
District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen isn't taking as dim a view of next year's budget situation as Eagleton, though he has his concerns.
"I guess I'm the eternal optimist on the council," he said. "I'm hoping that between now and the next budget process, we'll see an increase in sales tax income. If you had asked me that question 45 days ago, I would have been really optimistic. Now, I'm not so optimistic."
The problem might be several months from reaching the boiling point, but it's already on Eagleton's mind, even as he awaits the outcome of the Nov. 10 general election that will determine who the city's next mayor will be and who will emerge victorious from three council races that are being contested.
Strange as it sounds, Eagleton--who ran unopposed this fall for the District 7 seat he first won in 2006--almost welcomes the position city leaders will find themselves in next summer when they will have to navigate those treacherous waters and come up with a new budget.
"It's a chance to prove your mettle," he said. "I know what we need to do to make the budget work, now I just need to convince a majority of the council to do it."
Eagleton said he has been pleading with his fellow councilors for years to adopt a strategy he calls core-inflation budgeting, rather than simply budgeting to the revenue stream. Because Tulsa's municipal budget relies on sales tax revenue, he said, the amount of money city officials have to spend shrinks accordingly when sales tax receipts go into a decline.
In 2006, he said, the economy was good, and sales tax receipts were high.
"And we spent every penny we earned," he said. "We gave raises all around that are now baked into the cake. So, it becomes harder and harder every time, with each budget cycle downturn, to meet our budget."
Eagleton favors a budget process based on the core inflation rate that sets aside revenue for the inevitable downturns of the future. Some smaller sacrifices today can help the city avoid having to make what he calls the "Draconian cuts" required in the current budget.
"If we had done that in 2007 and 2008, yes, we would still have to trim the edges, but we wouldn't have the eight furlough days we did have," he said.
Eagleton said he plans on making the same core-budgeting plea next spring, but the reception that proposal receives depends on the makeup of the council and who occupies the mayor's office.
Christiansen said he is monitoring the council and mayoral campaigns with a great deal of interest, and he indicated he would welcome a certain amount of change -- at least in tone.
"Of course, we still don't know what the final makeup will be, but I'm excited about the new council," he said.
"With a new council seated, I'm hoping we'll have less divisiveness between the council and the mayor. Over the last six, nine, 12 months, there have been some very hard feelings between some members of the council and Mayor Taylor. That's not acceptable. I'm optimistic that will change."
Eagleton isn't overly concerned about the possible new faces that will come to city government. Each election cycle, a turnover of two to four seats seems to be the norm, he said.
"The beauty of the city council system is that you're almost always looking at somebody new," he said.
But he warned that the difficulty of getting up to speed on council issues, particularly the budget, is considerable.
"The learning curve of the City Council is a minimum of one year for the average person," he said, adding that until a new councilor experiences one budget cycle and sees the outcome, it's hard to have a real understanding of the process.
Christiansen said he doesn't believe the learning curve for new councilors is particularly tough--"I don't think anything you do on the council is rocket science," he said--but he acknowledged the fact that going through the budgeting process at least once is beneficial to a newcomer. And other aspects of the job are just as demanding, he said.
"The (Community Development Block Grant) process is extremely difficult," Christiansen said. "I remember (former councilor) Sam Roop telling me, 'If you think the budget is tough, wait for the CDBG process.' "
Three council seats remain up for grabs in November, but at least one newcomer will join the group when new terms begin in December. Chris Trail defeated incumbent Bill Martinson in the District 5 Republican primary, and since no Democrat or independent filed for that seat, it already is guaranteed to Trail.
Trail said he has already met various other councilors in an attempt to get himself up to speed.
"I feel pretty confident on the issues," he said. "I don't think it's going to be that big a learning curve, but I plan on spending a lot of time listening and learning."
Trail said he will be holding a series of town hall meetings in the weeks ahead to listen to the concerns of his constituents, but for now he plans on focusing on smaller issues that specifically apply to his district, such as concerns about group homes and slum lords.
As for the larger issues facing the city, Trail said, "I think we need to be more small-business friendly and look at the programs surrounding communities (have developed to promote growth)." Trail took particular aim at a municipal permitting process for new businesses that he believes is cumbersome and discourages growth.
Trail said he doesn't anticipate any difficulties working with his fellow councilors, though his victory came at the expense of Martinson, who was particularly noted for his business acumen. The loss of that experience was described by Eagleton as immeasurable.
"I've referred to him publicly as the brains of the City Council," Eagleton said. "He's been our go-to guy when the time came to crunch numbers. I originally ran for the council as a numbers guy because I have an accounting degree, but I can't keep up with him--he's that bright."
Eagleton emphasized he wasn't trying to disparage Trail, Martinson's replacement, but he said Martinson would be a hard act to follow.
"The loss of Councilor Martinson will make our job more difficult," he said.
District 2 Councilor Rick Westcott expressed many of the same concerns about the loss of Martinson in an interview with UTW shortly after the primary election. But Trail said he doesn't sense any lingering ill feeling on the part of the returning councilors and considers himself up to the challenge.
"No, I don't," he said. "We should be able to put all our differences aside for the greater good of Tulsa. We have to realize we're there to represent the people of Tulsa instead of our own pride and egos."
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