Before becoming the District 9 representative to the Tulsa City Council, G.T. Bynum spent six years working for a pair of U.S. senators, first Don Nickles and then Tom Coburn. In that time, it's safe to say he saw plenty of government reports cross his desk.
He doesn't recall being as excited about any of those documents as he was by the 2009 "Quality of Life Report" that councilors recently received.
"This is the kind of report that makes you drool," Bynum said, raving about the work done by council policy administrator Jack Blair and his staff, who compiled the document. "To have this kind of report from our council staff is amazing."
As its name indicates, the 91-page report, which is billed as an objective, quantitative analysis of the community and its place among similarly situated American cities, measures dozens of quality-of-life indicators in Tulsa from 2008 across eight categories and compares them to data gathered from peer cities in the region and others across the country such as Cleveland, Atlanta, Honolulu and Oakland. This is the sixth edition of the report, which purports to offer a snapshot of local conditions and trends in the context of other cities and Tulsa's recent past.
The overview section of the report notes that Tulsa boasts a relatively strong economy, a stable and affordable housing market, and an engaged citizenry. It also reveals that Tulsa ranks lower than the peer cities in the areas of recreation and health.
Other key findings showed that Tulsa's crime rate in 2008 was the lowest it had been in a decade, though the city ranks only 14th among the peer cities in crime indicators. And while the city's population grew by about 13 percent over the last 40 years, most of the area's population growth has taken place in its suburbs, which grew by more than 300 percent during that time.
Bynum's response to the report--he said he had made his way through three-quarters of it by late last week--was perhaps better than he expected.
"There's plenty to be concerned about," he said. "But, frankly, what surprised me was the overall positive tone of it. The areas in which we're the weakest, there are specific reasons for that. In air quality, for instance, we know exactly why. It's not something we have to figure out."
Bynum said as the parent of a 3-year-old, he was most pleased to see that Tulsa, and the state, fare so well in early childhood education. According to the report, the state ranks first in the nation in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool and is one of only 12 states to meet at least nine of 10 quality standards established by the National Institute for Early Childhood Education. Tulsa is cited as a national leader in the movement because of its Educare program.
"If you're talking about something that will make this a better community in the next generation, that's exactly how you do it," he said.
Bynum was very pleased to see how Tulsa compared economically. Tulsa was fifth among the 20 cities in overall economic vitality. Through 2008, Tulsa led all the peer cities in employment indicators, though the report notes those numbers crumbled in 2009. The city ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of income.
"We're doing far better than other cities, certainly better than our peer group in this report," he said.
Yes, But . . .
District 8 City Councilor Bill Christiansen was less enthused about at least one aspect of the report, the one that indicated most of the population growth in the metropolitan area has come in Tulsa's suburbs.
"It does point out we are losing our tax base to outlying communities, and that's troubling," he said. "We are solely dependent on sales tax to fund city services."
The report states that as suburban retail opportunities have increased, Tulsa's share of the retail sales in Tulsa County has fallen from 88 percent to 74 percent in less than 30 years.
Christiansen wants city residents to buy into the idea that they need to be purchasing products and services from Tulsa businesses if they want to see standards maintained in such areas as public safety, roads and other city services.
District 2 Councilor Rick Westcott also was concerned about the relatively flat population growth in Tulsa compared to the suburbs.
"That tells me the suburbs are doing a lot of things better than we are, and we need to take a hard look, though a lot of those things are being addressed in PLANiTULSA," he said.
Westcott, a former Tulsa police officer, was particularly interested in the city's crime statistics. He noted that while he hears a lot of anecdotal talk about increases in crime in Tulsa, the rate of violent crime over the decades has remained roughly the same, about 18 percent, even though the city's homicide rate jumped in 2003 and has remained relatively higher ever since.
"While that number is not something to be proud of, violent crimes have remained pretty flat," he said. "The crimes that have risen are larceny and property crimes, and from my experience as an officer, those tend to follow the economy and unemployment."
Generally speaking, he said, Tulsa's crime stats are not that alarming.
"I think there's a little more anxiety being generated than the facts will substantiate," he said.
Westcott said one public safety figure from the report that leapt out at him was that fact that only 4 percent of calls the Tulsa Fire Department responds to is for fires. Of the remainder, the largest percentage, 61 percent, goes for rescue or emergency medical calls.
"I really believe (those calls) could be more efficiently and economically handled by EMSA," he said.
Bynum said the report reiterated the well-known shortcomings of Tulsa's roads system. He cited a statistic from the report that indicates that at about 200 square miles, Tulsa is about as large as Boston, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Minneapolis combined, though it has only 19 percent of those cities' combined populations. The result, he said, is that the city simply can't keep up with its road maintenance obligations.
"Yes, roads have been underfunded, but they're underfunded because we've got so many lane miles and not enough people to pay for it all," he said.
The report goes on to state that the condition of Tulsa's roads has declined since the early 1990s.
Bynum also said he was disappointed by Tulsa's rankings in education in general. The report stated the city is 10th among its peer group in education indicators. Bynum hopes to see that improve, but he's not sure how to make that happen.
"The fact is, Tulsa lags behind our peer cities and the nation in education," he said. "The problem is, there really isn't a whole lot the city of Tulsa can do. The power is invested almost solely in school boards. Yet education is so crucial to our future growth."
Bynum pointed out that Jenks is able to provide a "world-class" education for its students, something Tulsa isn't doing right now.
"We've got to do a better job of improving opportunities for the students in Tulsa Public Schools," he said.
But Tulsa does have some things that surrounding communities don't, he said, and that's where the city needs to direct its efforts, Bynum believes.
"We've got to find a way to focus on the assets we have in Tulsa that can't be replicated by the suburbs," he said, citing downtown and the Arkansas River as the two most prominent examples. "We've got to do everything we can to maximize those assets. Owasso isn't going to build a downtown like we have, and they don't have the Arkansas River in Owasso."
In spite of the challenges Tulsa faces, Westcott said, the city continues to have a lot going for it.
"People still consider Tulsa a good place to raise a family," he said. "It always has been, and I think we need to capitalize on that."
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