The continued sharp decline in sales tax collections in Tulsa--the city's primary revenue source for general fund operations--has led more and more city officials to speculate about whether a more stable funding mechanism should be adopted.
But for the time being, one member of the City Council is focusing his efforts on improving those tax collections.
District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen is mounting a "Shop Tulsa First" campaign aimed at convincing local residents to spend their money within city limits--thereby avoiding seeing their sales taxes go to suburban governments such as Owasso, Broken Arrow or Bixby--or shopping online and avoiding paying sales tax at all.
"People can help us by shopping in Tulsa," Christiansen said.
The latest figures released by the state Tax Commission reflect the impact the reduced sales tax collections are having on the city of Tulsa's ability to fund it operations.
The Tax Commission's last report, issued in early December and representing sales tax and use tax collected from the middle of October to the middle of November, showed that the city of Tulsa sales tax collections dropped nearly $2.7 million from the same period in 2008, a 14.5 percent reduction.
City officials had expected a drop in those collections, and even budgeted for one, but the most recent numbers were more severe than anticipated, as the collections were 4.9 percent less than the budget estimated for the month.
The use tax numbers were no better. Use taxes, which businesses and others pay on purchases of equipment from out-of-state vendors, came to nearly $1.2 million for the reporting period, a decline of 23.8 percent from the approximate $1.5 million for the same period in 2008. According to city officials, those collections were 15.2 percent less than the budget estimate.
City officials report nine consecutive months of sales tax collection declines, a trend they said is unprecedented in the city's history. Those figures are placing a heavy strain on the city budget, forcing city officials to look for more ways to save money even after they adopted a budget last June that curtailed operations and forced every city employee to take eight furlough days throughout the course of the fiscal year. Since then, additional bad news on the financial front has led to layoffs of city personnel.
Christiansen said one of the main purposes of his campaign is to create a sense of awareness among Tulsans that when they spend their money outside the city limits or on the Web, they're depriving city government of sales tax revenue it desperately needs to maintain operations.
"It's time for us to educate people," he said. "This program would let people who live within Tulsa city limits know we are totally tied to the sales tax for issues that improve our quality of life."
Christiansen said the city's information technology staff is working on a "Shop Tulsa First" Web site that includes links to Tulsa businesses in a variety of categories, thus allowing those who enjoy the convenience of online shopping to purchase goods from a local merchant and pay sales tax on their transaction.
"If they don't want to go out because of traffic, they'll have the convenience of shopping online but also pay sales tax," he said.
Christiansen said he hopes to have the Web site launched by late January. He said he regretted not having the site operational by November to take advantage of the holiday shopping season, but he still thinks it can help improve the city's tax collection figures.
"This is not just a seasonal thing, but something that will go on year round," he said.
Tulsa needs to halt the sales tax collection slide quickly in order to avoid more severe cuts to services and personnel. The figures for the past six months have been particularly troubling to city officials, beginning with a 10.8 percent decline in collections from the report released in July. The numbers rebounded somewhat for August, showing only a 5.8 percent reduction in collections, but those figures plummeted again in September and have remained in the double digits ever since--10.5 percent for September, 11.6 percent for October, 14.2 percent for November and 14.5 percent for December.
Christiansen pointed to the impact that reduction in revenue is having on all phases of city government, with the worst perhaps yet to come.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. has asked city department heads to submit new proposals that would reduce their budget by anywhere from 2.2 to 4.4 percent.
"Public Works, parks and the zoo are all cutting employees and running on fumes," Christiansen said. "Potentially, we could see cuts in public safety."
Christiansen hopes to attract the support of the Tulsa Metro Chamber for the "Shop Tulsa First" campaign, although that organization already promotes a "Let's Do Business" campaign on its Web site that encourages area residents to purchase their goods and services from merchants in the greater Tulsa area. According to the chamber's Web site, the Tulsa region loses $29 million a day to out-of-area purchases.
Regardless of whether his plan earns the support of the chamber, Christiansen believes the "Shop Tulsa First" campaign has the potential to blunt the effect of a poor economy on the city's budget situation.
"I would hope it would have a good impact," he said, again citing the importance of educating Tulsans about the need to keep their sales tax dollars in the city. "My expectation is it will hopefully increase awareness, as well as help small businesses."
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