A funding plan that would allow for the hiring of a city planning director and a firm to help with a rewrite of the city's zoning code -- two important steps called for in Tulsa's recently updated comprehensive plan -- could be approved soon, according to City Councilor G.T. Bynum.
The District 9 Councilor said in December he expected the council to take up the matter as quickly as the holidays were over, working with the office of Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. to identify a funding source for the two expenditures. The council then would need to pass a budget amendment approving that move.
"I would think we could get that amendment passed in relatively short order," Bynum said.
The mayor's office had forwarded a proposed budget amendment of approximately $1 million to the council last month that included funding for a planning director and zoning code update, and was ready to move forward with both those initiatives then, according to Terry Simonson, Bartlett's chief of staff.
"When the council convened, for some reason, they chose not to address that at that time, to fund the budget request on both those," Simonson said in December.
Bynum said the council's decision not to fund the request for those initiatives was not because they don't have widespread support.
"My concern with what they brought forward was namely their plan to use one-time money for what is going to be a continuous expense," he said, explaining that the funding for the budget amendment consisted mostly of higher-than-projected sales tax collections. "If we are going to hire someone, we need to find a way to pay for them for more than just a couple of months. To fund this with one-time money would be grossly irresponsible."
Simonson said the council's decision caught him a little off guard.
"I was a bit surprised because the council had been notified about this orally and by a written memo, so they knew or had reason to know this would be coming to them in December and that the funding had been identified," he said. "We had available money we had not counted on that would fund both these initiatives. The administration is ready to go."
As an alternative, Bynum said he has identified approximately $1.5 million that has been budgeted for city positions that have gone vacant, and he considers those funds a much better source to tap than the unpredictable sales tax collections.
"Over $300,000 of that is for jobs that have been vacant for nine months, and over $600,000 of that is for jobs that have been vacant for six months," he said. "I suggested to the mayor that a better approach would be to look at the positions that are vacant right now."
If councilors and the mayor can agree that some of that money can be reprioritized and the money shifted to the two Planning Department initiatives, that would be preferable to increasing the budget, Bynum said.
"That is something we can count on for the future," he said.
Bynum emphasized that the council's unwillingness to go along with the original plan forwarded by the mayor's office did not mean councilors don't support the hiring of a planning director or the rewrite of the zoning code.
"Everybody agrees the Planning Department is important, but it's also important we have the proper level of fiscal discipline if we're figuring out how to pay for it," he said.
Simonson said he was not frustrated by the council's decision, though he said he was not aware of the rationale behind it.
"I think the council has its own reasons for delaying that," he said. "I assume there is unanimous support on the council for those initiatives, but I don't know that that's necessarily the case."
Even so, he expects the council to take action on the matter quickly.
PLANiTULSA was approved in July 2010, and the hiring of a planning director and the rewrite of the zoning code are two of its most pressing recommendations.
"We are hopeful they will see we are ready to go and that implementation of the PLANiTULSA recommendations is one of the mayor's priorities for 2011," Simonson said.
Bynum said his belief is that the two initiatives are a priority for both the mayor's office and the council.
"I don't know if anyone disagrees with the need to hire a planning director," he said. "I would say the council has been pushing for this for months."
A statement released by the mayor's office on Dec. 29 seems to support the notion that both sides are eager to see the PLANiTULSA recommendations funded. Responding to his inspection of the council's new compendium of needs -- an annual list of citywide priorities that councilors support unanimously -- Bartlett indicated he shares the council's support for the hiring of a planning director and the update of the zoning code, among other issues.
Bynum said it remains to be seen how much the two initiatives will cost.
"That's one thing we really need to look at -- $300,000 may cover everything we need, but I don't know," he said.
In any event, he's pleased at the prospect of the comprehensive plan's recommendations finally becoming a reality several months after their adoption.
"I'm just glad we're finally moving forward with it," he said. "The ball has just been dropped by city government. Hopefully, we can get things moving."
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