"No longer can one single municipality, regardless of its size, fund the infrastructure it needs. We must compete as a region, not among ourselves."
In his opening remarks as Tulsa's new Chamber President, Don Walker resurrected a chamber priority: to save money, an end to the destructive competition for the tax base and the failure to achieve economies of scale through functional merger of basic municipal services; to grow the economy, a unified plan for economic development emphasizing job growth and retention over the metropolitan area, regional as opposed to a silo city effort.
Anyone who attended both President Walker's inaugural and former Mayor Taylor's final State of the City a few months prior, from the same dais, heard the echo. Regionalism is the No. 1 priority for Tulsa, she said. These are words we must heed.
And we must heed now. Tulsa awoke from the fog of the mayoral election to rippling polar waters crashing against the city's bow: our worst budget failure since World War II, the possible loss of several hundred city employees--including more than 200 police officers and fire fighters--the attendant compromise to public safety and quality municipal service, and no long-range plan to redress a failed revenue model that, in the absence of action, promises greater deterioration of essential public services in the near future and beyond. That's not the city we know or deserve.
It is clear that Tulsa has reached the breaking point. With ever-increasing infrastructure costs and declining density, Tulsa's current revenue model is not sustainable. The sales tax base itself, difficult to predict and subject to wide fluctuation, is shrinking. Fifty years ago, 60 percent of our economy occurred in taxable goods transactions and 40 percent in nontaxable services.
Throughout the years, that ratio has reversed. State and local governments have an even smaller funding base to tax, the engines of the modern economy churning in ever greater proportions in non-taxable services, with dire consequences for local municipal revenues. Few politicians will broach the subject; it's dangerous to run on a plank of deadwood. But there ought to be a discussion in Oklahoma--why do we pay a sales tax on food, clothing, groceries and medicines but not legal or accounting services? That's not the case in New Mexico or South Dakota or Delaware.
Compounding this failed revenue model, every year, Tulsa loses about one percent of the sales tax market share to our bedroom communities.
This is all the more reason why we need to become more efficient; why we need to eliminate service duplication and waste that is a direct result of local municipal rivalry; why we need to establish trust with fellow taxpayers for the honest discussion to be had about our failed revenue model.
Other cities have transformed themselves, discarding the zero-sum proposition of competition in favor of a culture of cooperation. Following consolidation with surrounding Clarke County, government spending actually declined in Athens, Ga., and an improved credit rating reduced their interest rates on loans.
Indianapolis, Ind. attained significant savings as a result of their move to a more regional form of government. There are models of success in Denver, Nashville, Pittsburg and San Francisco.
In Louisville, Ky., the city and county merged.
Surrounding cities maintained their separate identities, their own police departments, their own city councils and the ability to collect their own taxes. But regionalism brought significant savings.
Instead of two information-technology departments, there is one. Instead of two human resources offices, there is one. Savings were achieved in the areas of transportation and land use planning. Louisville will also save money on leases as the need for office space declines. And regionalism promises this without erosion to the cultural, political and historical features that distinguish participating cities and towns.
We have models of success in our metro area: the Tulsa City-County Health Department, the Tulsa City-County Library, the River Parks Authority. Tulsa secured economies of scale when it enacted cooperative city agreements with Jenks, Sand Springs and Bixby for EMSA ambulance service.
Our EMSA service funding depends on 75 percent patient usage, the remaining funds allocated on a per capita basis. Each city does this differently. Tulsa does not impose a utility fee on commercial establishments, only residential use; Jenks taxes all utility users. However funded, there is no duplication; we share one ambulance service.
The EMSA model warrants greater attention as Mayor Bartlett begins discussions with the county sheriff's office in the midst of Tulsa's failed budget. A metro police force is hardly unorthodox. Other communities--Miami, Fla., Las Vegas, Nev., Charlotte, N.C.--combined public safety into metro police forces that are meeting their obligations to keep their citizens safe.
Regionalism will also save taxpayers on our public infrastructure costs. The Tulsa Public Works Department has requisitioned millions of dollars worth of flat bed trucks, dump trucks, pull trucks, utility vehicles, "bulky waste" trucks, haulers, cement movers, pick-up trucks, tandem trucks, haulers, tracked loaders, truck excavators, cab pickups, forklifts, explorers and "heavy duty crew" trucks. It's as if Toby Keith went on a shopping spree.
Imagine the savings in the shared procurement for equipment and supplies, the shared provision of labor and personnel.
Parks, economic development, transportation, public safety, procurement, water and sewer operations and information technology: These are just a few of the separate departments in the City of Tulsa, Tulsa County and our surrounding communities.
A shared approach to economic development also makes sense, unlocking the potential of the metro area. The Brookings Institute has devoted an entire section of their work force to encourage regional integration. As the Institute observes, we remain fixed in old arrangements, established decades ago and kept in place by bureaucratic inertia and entrenched political interests, ensuring a failure to coordinate economic development and a loss in the competition for jobs to others.
Tulsa has a clear challenge ahead to pull the metropolitan region out of the current mire of intercity competition. With a clear vision of the potential for savings and improved services and a unified effort to build our economy, a regional approach is an imperative. This year, in the worst budgetary environment in a half-century, let's support the Tulsa Chamber priority for closer partnerships with the County and our surrounding cities.
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