City Councilor G.T. Bynum had a pretty good idea by late last week of what the fallout was going to be from a record-breaking snowstorm that left Tulsa paralyzed for days, keeping many employees from their work and consumers unable to patronize businesses.
"I'm going to make a wild prediction here and say there'll be a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on about the city's response to the storm, but our people have done everything they can with the resources they've been given," he said on Feb. 4 as Tulsans were still digging their way out of the Feb. 1 storm that dumped a record 14 inches of snow on the city.
The real issue, he said, is whether it's time for the city to begin devoting more resources to its winter weather-fighting capability.
"That's an excellent question, and I imagine it's something we're going to be examining in the weeks and months to come," he said. "But you're probably going to run into some people who say this is an isolated incident ... and we shouldn't overreact."
Bynum said that may be a reasonable response, as well, but he noted such storms have become no stranger to Tulsa in recent years, recalling the ice storm that struck the city in December of 2007 and the Christmas Eve blizzard that struck in 2009. The impact of those storms has been considerable, he said.
"It's a safety issue, but it's also an economic development issue," he said. "Every day people can't get to work is a day people aren't generating revenue. This is the worst possible scenario for the city. It's a time when the city is spending a great deal of money on overtime (for street-clearing crews) and materials, and yet, people aren't going out and buying things. So your revenue declines while your expenses go up."
Bynum wasn't alone in fretting over those issues last week. A number of his fellow councilors heaped praise on the work done by the city's Public Works Department to clear the streets but noted that city workers simply seemed overmatched by the elements. The result, they said, was a situation that left many people frustrated.
"We're going to have to do something," District 3 Councilor Roscoe Turner said. "We can't continue the way we are."
District 8's Bill Christiansen was even more blunt when he was asked if the city had done enough to mitigate the hazardous conditions.
"No, far from it," he said, hastening to add he was not criticizing the work of the Public Works Department or the employees from other city departments who pitched in to help.
But what to do? The lingering economic downturn has left city officials with considerably less revenue to fund government operations than in years past. And while few observers would argue that having more snow-removal equipment and personnel would be a good thing, the matter of where they rank as priorities is another thing altogether.
"I can see this becoming a topic we will be discussing," said District 4 Councilor Maria Barnes as the city's budget talks heat up over the next few months.
District 2's Rick Westcott voiced strong support for the idea of devoting additional resources to the Public Works Department and countering a trend of reduced funding that has gone on under the past few mayoral administrations, he said.
"You can see the detrimental effects in the streets on a day-to-day basis in patching," he said of the cuts to the department's budget.
"Our effectiveness has been far reduced. Another way you can see it is now in our ability to react to storms like this. I think we need to increase our funding for Public Works. And by increase our funding, I mean get it back to the level it was a few years ago."
Bynum said he and his fellow councilors need to talk with Public Works officials about storm-fighting preparations and determine if there is a more efficient way to take advantage of the resources the department has available.
"Manpower and equipment are the two issues that stand out in my mind," he said. "Is there equipment we can use for multiple purposes or do we have vehicles sitting in the (maintenance) yard because we don't have people to drive them? That's when our oversight and response become very important."
Bynum said he believes the council made sure the city was adequately supplied with salt to fight storms before winter even started, though he noted councilors had to overcome a veto by Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. to make that happen.
Councilor Chris Trail said he's not convinced that additional equipment and manpower is the answer, but he's sure the Bartlett administration needs to spend more time listening to what Public Works veterans tell them. Originally, he said, Public Works officials asked for $1.4 million to fight winter storms, only to see the administration whittle that figure down to $75,000 for salt. The council tried to bump that figure up to $500,000 before eventually passing a budget amendment that provided $250,000, he said.
"We need to listen to the people who know what they're doing, and if they say we need it, we need it," Trail said. "If you have (Public Works director) Charles Hardt and (deputy director)Dan Crossland, each with 40 years of experience, saying, 'We need more salt and sand' and you have the mayor step in and say, 'We only need $75,000 worth of salt,' well, I don't know why salt is even political."
Trail and Barnes both said they were disappointed at the level of communication councilors had with administration officials last week.
Barnes, who served on the council during a 2007 storm, recalled how then-Mayor Kathy Taylor called councilors repeatedly to keep them apprised of the city's efforts.
But until Public Works officials appeared before a council committee meeting on Feb. 3 to discuss the issue, she said, councilors received no information at all on this storm, despite the fact that councilors often are on the receiving end of complaints from their constituents -- many of whom had been stranded at home for days.
Barnes said she had been unable to get her own car out of her neighborhood and had walked to a nearby grocery store twice to fetch supplies. On the way, she said, she encountered several other residents doing the same thing, and she was unable to answer their questions about why the snow- and ice-removal process was taking so long.
"Just let us know what the plan is," she said.
Trail echoed those complaints about a lack of communication between the administration and the council, though he said he did hear twice toward the end of the week from Chris Benge, the mayor's new director of intergovernmental and enterprise development.
"The council is so far out of the loop," he said. "I get a lot of calls and e-mails from people who are unhappy, asking, 'What's the plan?' and I don't know."
Under the administrations of previous mayors, Trail said, it was his understanding that councilors were kept well informed in such situations "so you know what to tell constituents when they call you."
Christiansen spent much of Feb. 5 dealing with some of his constituents face to face. A day earlier, he had sent out a message via e-mail and Facebook to residents of his district, advising them that if they needed help making it through the storm, he had a four-wheel drive vehicle and would be happy to do what he could. He said a handful of his constituents took him up on the offer, including one woman who had run out of groceries and asked him to do her shopping for her.
The District 8 councilor had a different take on the storm's aftermath than his colleagues on the council.
"What you need to do to change it is you need someone going in a direction that's proactive rather than reactive," he said. "It's long been established that one of the best ways to fight this is to go out and put a substance on the streets to combat freezing before the snow arrives. Why that wasn't done, I can't tell you."
Christiansen said he believes the city will wind up spending far more money scraping the frozen precipitation from the streets that it would have had to if it had applied the anti-freezing material before the storm.
"It makes all the difference in the world because the ice has a harder time bonding with the surface," he said.
Christiansen placed the blame for that at the feet of the mayor.
"This whole thing is just a catastrophe," he said. "I think it's Dewey Bartlett's (Hurricane) Katrina, myself. I just don't think he was ahead of the game. It's very frustrating to me because it's affecting our businesses and individuals."
Christiansen emphasized he wasn't blaming rank-and-file employees for the state of the city's streets.
"I throw no stones at the Public Works Department or the individual city employees who are out there driving trucks," he said. "They're doing a great job. I think it's the upper leadership of the city."
As for the issue of whether funding for Public Works should be increased to improve the city's storm-fighting capacity, Christiansen sided with Bynum.
"Before I would say 'Go out and spend more money on equipment,' I think we should evaluate what we have now," he said. "Right now, it just doesn't seem like we have the proper procedures in place."
A number of councilors expressed concern about a recent audit of city services performed by the firm KPMG that supporters hope will result in a leaner city government. Several councilors pointed out that workers from other departments were put to use as part of the city's storm-fighting effort, something they wouldn't have been available to do if their jobs had been eliminated as a cost-saving measure.
"We're trying to get rid of people, and we need to be hiring people," Turner said.
Barnes was particularly concerned about that scenario.
"The KPMG study talked about eliminating some jobs in departments that weren't needed, but those guys jump in and fill in in times like these," she said. "That's something we need to be aware of. Some of the things in the KPMG report may not be good for us."
Westcott pointed out that Public Works employees typically work 12-hour shifts in the aftermath of a big winter storm.
"That's a lot to ask anyone to do for several days in a row or a week," he said, explaining that having additional manpower available would lighten the burden of those workers. "I think we can put them to good use at other times of the year."
Bynum wonders if some city vehicles can't serve multiple purposes, such as street repair, and snow and ice removal.
"On one hand, you don't want to have a piece of equipment that sits in a storage yard for three years without being used," he said. "But if there's a way to use a piece of equipment we already have, those are the questions that need to be answered."
If the council reaches a consensus during its upcoming budget deliberations that additional resources are necessary for the Public Works Department, Bynum said, it could address the manpower issue then.
But providing funding for additional equipment is more complicated, he said.
"That would probably be a couple of years down the road when the third-penny sales tax expires and we look at renewing it," he said. "We would try to build capital expenditures into the program. That's when this would be addressed."
Bynum said he realized that many citizens and some of his fellow councilors were frustrated by the city's inability to clear the streets last week. But he pointed out that the task of managing resources effectively to provide adequate funding for all city services is a huge challenge.
And he said when his fellow councilors are unwilling to give serious consideration to the idea of billing negligent drivers when the Fire Department responds to a motor vehicle accident or raising fees to help cover the city's costs for special events in public spaces -- two recent Bynum proposals that were rejected by the council -- it compounds that challenge.
"We need to look at whether we need to be giving people a free ride just because that's the way we've always done it, especially when you don't have enough money for something like this, which has a huge economic impact on everybody in the city," he said.
While it no doubt will be weeks or even months before the full effects of the Blizzard of '11 are made fully apparent, Trail said nothing is more important than the toll it has taken on many of Tulsa's poorer citizens, the ones who can least afford to miss work.
"There's going to be families who are going to miss a paycheck, who are not going to be able to make it," he said. "They've still got their water bills and their PSO (to pay), and they're not going to care, so they're going to get their water shut off. There are going to be a lot of struggling families, and we made it a lot worse for them. That's the real sadness here. I wish we could do a better job. If we can do a better job, we should. The citizens are so dependent on their paychecks, and a lot of them can't just take those days off."
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