An issue that appeared to be shaping up as the political battle of the year in the spring -- the idea of the city and the county working together to save taxpayer money -- has all but been forgotten in recent months as a lingering battle over utility fees at Expo Square remains unresolved.
The disagreement over those fees appears to be standing in the way of city and county representatives getting together to explore the idea of collaborating on various functions such as parks maintenance or the joint purchase of salt and sand for winter storms, which officials on both sides have said could save both entities money.
The city and county have been quarreling for months over $265,000 in disputed storm water drainage fees at the Fairgrounds, with no resolution in sight. The city claims the county owes it the money, while county officials have argued they signed an agreement with then-Mayor Kathy Taylor that exempted the county from paying the fees in question.
An attempt to settle the issue by mediation failed when the council rejected the proposed agreement by an 8-1 vote on June 22.
"Since that time, I have seen County Commissioner (John) Smaligo a few times and asked him if there was something they could do, something they might be able to assist us with, that would sweeten the deal a little bit," said Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr., a member of the city of Tulsa team that negotiated the proposed agreement with the county. "But I have not heard back from him."
Bartlett said it was his understanding that Smaligo had sent a letter to city officials on the subject last week, but the mayor said he hadn't seen the letter and wasn't sure if it contained a new proposal.
"It could have been a letter asking for more information," Bartlett said.
The mayor said members of the City Council have made it clear they won't revisit the issue of city-county collaboration until the disputed bill is cleared up.
"My personal view of that is, too bad," he said. "I believe both things can be accomplished, and to put off collaboration with the county where we could find things we can do together or work on things to make them better, that, entirely in itself, would have been great to me. And I think both sides would develop a better rapport with the other, and that should lead to the ability to work something out, to compromise on the storm water fees."
District 9 Councilor G.T. Bynum, who has helped lead the effort to get the city and county together, said he hasn't abandoned the issue.
"That is still one of the top things on my to-do list," Bynum said. "I'm in a holding pattern over the outstanding bill on the utility fees at the Fairgrounds."
When the issue of city-county collaboration initially was taken up, the council appeared split. A proposal by Bynum to form a joint city-county committee to explore areas in which the two might collaborate was defeated by a 5-4 vote, though much of the opposition to the idea seemed to stem from the dispute over the utility fees. District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen, in particular, noted he was likely to switch his vote if the utility fees issue could be resolved.
"The sentiment I've received from my colleagues on the council is that they're receptive to working together," Bynum said; although he added the utility fees controversy is blocking any progress.
But Bartlett unwittingly might have strengthened opposition to the idea a few days later when he responded to the defeat of the initiative by issuing an executive order on April 13 authorizing the creation of a city-county advisory committee, one that would hold meetings that would not be open to the public.
That move infuriated many councilors, even those who supported the creation of such a committee. Bartlett's executive order was viewed as an attempt to execute an end run by those councilors, and it seemed to usher in an era of ill will between the administration and the council that has left those two entities largely unable to agree on anything in recent weeks.
Conjunction, What's Your Function
Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith, another proponent of city-county collaboration, has watched that situation unfold with dismay. She and her fellow commissioners have not taken any action on Bartlett's executive order, leaving it languishing almost four months after it was issued.
"Well, I've been waiting for things to calm down at City Hall," Keith said, indicating that she hoped to speak with Bartlett this week about where the negotiations stood between the city and county. "Right now, I don't even know how to get them on the same page. This thing is moving like molasses."
Asked to describe her sense of whether the situation is salvageable, she replied, "I'm hopeful," before stopping herself and letting out a sigh. "I don't know what I am."
Bynum is unhappy with the situation, as well.
"It's frustrating to me how long it's taking to do something that benefits everyone," he said, though he acknowledged the hard feelings on both sides. In that respect, it's best to wait on getting the city and county together until there's some resolution of the disagreement over the utility fees.
"Everything will be more constructive in regard to us having that dialogue anyway without this issue on the table," he said.
Resolving the disputed utility fees issue will be easier said than done. Keith was particularly disappointed in the City Council's reaction to the proposed mediation agreement.
"How do you go into mediation with the attitude, 'If I get my way, we'll accept what the mediator says. I didn't get my way, so we're not going to accept that,' " she said.
Nevertheless, she said, the issue won't linger forever.
"We will get something worked out on it," Keith said. "I've said all along I want it settled. That is so petty when it's holding up what we need to do as governments. I'm very, very disappointed in their response to mediation."
Keith and Bynum had been working on the idea of holding a community-wide public forum to explore city-county collaboration and had hoped to announce a date and location for that event several months ago.
"It would be a citywide meeting much like the summit that kicked off the Vision 2025 campaign," he said. "We'd be looking for ideas from citizens about how the city and county could work together better so it was not just the mayor and council talking. We thought that would be a great way to initiate the process."
But that idea is stuck on high center, as well. Keith said her sense of the atmosphere at City Hall is that it has become toxic.
"I do want to see things work better, but I think we all need to sit down and talk about our forms of government and talk about what's working and what's not working," she said.
Bynum noted there are three parties to the city-county collaboration issue -- the mayor, the City Council and the County Commission -- and all three need to be supportive of the idea.
"If only two of those groups are on board, it's not going to be successful," he said. "This is one of those things where we have to keep polishing the stone, and the thing will eventually fall into place. It's unfortunate that something so common sense is so difficult to do, but there are a lot of issues at play."
Bartlett said he was frustrated by the lack of progress on the issue but not discouraged.
"At the end of the day, it's so obvious to anybody that there are a lot of opportunities for the city and county to work together on some issues. It's as plain as the nose on your face."
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