The Tulsa City Council could give tens of thousands of Tulsans an early Christmas present this year if they would do one simple thing: pass a city ordinance which would de-annex Expo Square, a.k.a. The Fairgrounds, back to Tulsa County. In doing so, the council would remove the three-cent city sales tax charged on sales at Expo Square, giving every purchaser a sales tax cut. For big ticket items, that would be quite a savings.
Some of the biggest events drawing the largest crowds will be held at Expo Square over the next six months where our local economy could benefit from this tax reduction. These include the Home and Garden Show, the Sport, Boat, & Travel Show, the Just Between Friends event, gun shows, and hundreds of other events held each year at Expo Square. Think of it like the sales tax free holiday weekend we have each August, only this would be every day of the year all year long at Expo Square.
How often does any public official get the opportunity to actually remove a tax or lower a tax for the citizens and at the same time promote visitors and tourism to Tulsa?
There is no other single location, and that would include the BOK Center downtown, that draws as many people to Tulsa each year as the events at Expo Square. Sometimes, with all of the buzz and activity downtown, people forget that Expo Square is and has been the regional magnet for Tulsa for years, and even more so since the major improvements and upgrades.
For those who don't remember how Expo Square ended up in the hands of the city in the first place, a little history lesson is in order. Between 2007 and 2009, Tulsa was just beginning to feel the effects of the worst recession in over 40 years. This was particularly the case with the dramatic drop in collected sales tax. Those collections funded just about every service coming out of city government.
Desperate to find a way to keep the lights on, someone at City Hall had the bright idea that if the City of Tulsa annexed Expo Square, sales transactions during events at Expo Square could be taxed, and other activities would fall under the city's red tape and be regulated and charged a fee by the City of Tulsa.
With the support of then-mayor Kathy Taylor, the city council discovered that by passing an ordinance, it could annex Expo Square, which would effectively be passing an increase in sales tax without a vote of the people. This would create a new source of sales tax revenue for the city. Supporters at the time had stars in their eyes on how much revenue this was actually going to bring into city coffers.
Of course, the county-elected officials like County Commissioner John Smaligo were adamantly against this, arguing that removing what was essentially a "tax free zone" and imposing mountains of city red tape was not in either the citizens' or the operations of Expo Square's best interests.
The annexation of Expo Square didn't save the city from the recession. The tax collected never came close to the huge amounts predicted. It has proven to be a disjointed undertaking where it's nearly impossible for the city to know if all of the sales tax that should have been collected has been collected and accounted for.
In addition to the sales tax, once the city completed its annexation, Expo Square had to pay higher water, sewer, storm water, and refuse rates. Because there is an "in city" rate and an "out of city rate" for these utility services, as long as Expo Square was county property, it was outside the city limits and paying the lower rates.
Lately, the city council has been talking up the importance and value of promoting visitors, tourism, and economic development. They say they want to find new opportunities to promote these for Tulsa. They should also want to make sure they don't kill the goose that laid the golden egg when it comes to visitors and tourism and all the money it brings to our local economy.
There is no single place in Tulsa that consistently meets all of the city council goals, 365 days of the year, than what is happening at Expo Square.
Rather than impose unnecessary taxes and costly regulations, the city should be looking for ways to promote and support every event at Expo Square. Tulsans have invested hundreds of millions of dollars from initiatives Four to Fix 1 and 2 and Vision 2025 to make Expo Square a world class facility. We shouldn't forget that, and we certainly shouldn't impede its success with burdensome taxes and regulations.
Mayor Bartlett has said he supports the de-annexation. It makes good economic sense, and it makes for good neighbors with county officials. All it takes is five of our nine city councilors to see the light, do what's right, and vote to de-annex Expo Square back to Tulsa County.
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