It may be settled, but it's a long way from being over.
That seemed to be the sentiment coming from certain members of the City Council last week after city officials announced an agreement had been reached with Tulsa County officials to end a dispute over storm water collection and refuse service fees at the Fairgrounds.
City and county officials had been squabbling over the money since early spring, when the city claimed the county owed it more than $300,000 for unpaid storm water fees. County officials argued an agreement they had reached earlier with then-Mayor Kathy Taylor relieved them of that debt.
The issue was settled last week when the city's Public Works Director, Charles Hardt, offered the county a one-time credit of approximately $393,000 for its construction of a storm water detention facility that was built prior to the city's annexation of the Fairgrounds in 2009. That credit will be applied toward the county's balance on storm water fees. The city also agreed to reduce the county's monthly storm water billing, crediting it for the excess storage the detention facility provides.
That agreement will leave the county with a credit that is expected to cover its storm water fees for approximately four months, according to a city press release. Afterward, the city will begin billing the county for storm water and refuse services at the Fairgrounds at a rate of approximately $13,000 per month.
City and county officials had been in a stalemate for months over how to resolve the issue, with the council having voted earlier to reject a proposed settlement that was reached through mediation. Last week's settlement left some councilors with lingering questions.
"I guess, like everybody else, I wanted to know how they can do this," said Jim Mautino of District 6, adding that he was eager to receive assurances that the deal complies with the city charter and city ordinances. "There's a lot of businesses out there that also complain about their storm water rates, and I wouldn't want there to be any impression that we're not treating everyone the same."
Councilor Bill Christiansen of District 8 was similarly perplexed -- and perturbed.
"I understand how (Hardt) has the authority to adjust (the county's) monthly fees," he said. "But I don't understand what gives him the authority to just give them almost $400,000 in credit for building facilities."
Christiansen said his reaction was "great surprise and shock" when he was informed of the settlement on Aug. 17.
"I was just greatly disappointed in the system and concerned about all the other storm water rate payers in Tulsa," he said. "It takes a great deal of money to maintain, and if one entity doesn't pay their fair share, everybody else has to pick up the slack."
Mautino said he wasn't expecting the settlement, either.
"It was a surprise, in a way, for them to be able to do this without contacting the council," Mautino said. "It was a quick thing to happen. If we're involved in it before, why weren't we involved in it now?"
Mautino said council members posed that question to Hardt when he appeared before them on Aug. 19 to explain the deal, and the Public Works director told them he followed procedure by seeking the counsel of the Stormwater Drainage Advisory Board first. Once he had done that, Mautino said, Hardt went forward with the settlement "and felt like he didn't need to come to the council."
Hardt was scheduled to go back before councilors on Aug. 24 to address more of their concerns. Christiansen said he planned to ask Hardt again to cite the authority he used in issuing the $393,000 credit to the county.
According to the city's press release announcing the settlement, Fairgrounds officials requested the credit for excess storage capacity after the council rejected the initial proposed settlement earlier this year. According to a city ordinance, any developer or property owner who builds a storm water detention facility in the city in accordance with the master drainage plan may seek construction credit from the city, as well as a monthly credit for providing excess storage.
Resolution of the issue came as good news to Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr., who helped engineer the proposed settlement that had been rejected by the council.
"Before the mediation, there was no discussion on how the issue could be resolved," Bartett stated in the press releases. "In the city, the city of Tulsa and the Tulsa County officials truly reached an agreement wherein both parties could acknowledge benefits and continue to work within the original memorandum of understanding following annexation."
Mautino and Christiansen both said they didn't know if the council could intercede in the deal at this point.
"If I could stop it, I would," Christiansen said. "I'd like to stop it, speaking as just one councilor, but I don't know if we have the power to do that."
Mautino believes the deal Hardt struck with the county is slightly better than the settlement that was proposed a few months ago.
"It is somewhat different from the one that was proposed before and brought to us," he said, noting that under the terms of the first proposal, the city would have received approximately $8,000 a month in storm water fees from the county. "Now, it's quite a bit more. We're going to collect more in the long run, I imagine, but it's going to take a while."
Christiansen said the new agreement is more acceptable than the old one, particularly the section that establishes the monthly fee of approximately $13,000 the county has agreed to pay.
"That portion, I have no problem with," he said, emphasizing that his complaints with the settlement lie in the amount of the credit Hardt extended to the county for building the storm water detention facility and the authority he exercised to make that deal.
Meanwhile, Mautino has another concern about the new deal.
"There's going to be more development on the east side (of the Fairgrounds), and are the citizens of Tulsa going to pay for that?" he asked. "We're probably going to have to build another storm water detention pond. Is that going to be on the backs of citizens? I'm guessing it probably is."
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