POSTED ON FEBRUARY 27, 2013:
Reviewing the Wish List
Capital improvement reforms may impact tax package
Big dollars, big dilemma.
City leaders know limited funding won't allow them to grant every request for an infrastructure upgrade. The same goes for maintenance because there isn't enough money for every project.
This year, however, a tax extension package worth roughly $800 million will likely be presented to voters as a renewal of the 2008 Fix Our Streets package.
This time, city leaders have said they will consider funding non-street projects. Back in 2008, the package focused entirely on streets.
So, how to decide which projects are most worthy?
City policy actually lays out criteria for evaluating what are known as capital improvement projects. But even carefully crafted reforms put in place starting in 2008 don't make for straightforward decisions.
For example, replacing the Tulsa police records management computer system wasn't listed with the top capital projects among budget documents published last year.
Yet the need emerged after several meetings of the Public Safety Intelligence Working Group, which met in the wake of the Jan. 7 quadruple slaying at the Fairmont Terrace apartment complex.
The safety group, chaired by Councilor G.T. Bynum, formally recommended a new police records system to the Tulsa City Council.
In an interview, Bynum said he wasn't bothered to hear that the records management system wasn't judged to be near the top of the capital improvements list last year.
"We're not going to be nailed down by the bureaucratic paper trail from a couple of years ago or whatever," Bynum said. "We're just going to assess the needs as best we can and, at least to date, all of the experts we've talked with say this is a situation that absolutely has to be improved."
Gary Hamer, the city's capital planning manager, said he and other city staff are creating a new project ID to add to the city's database of capital improvement projects.
"There was a similar project that was in the inventory many years ago, and it related to a portion of this system they were trying to get replaced, but it didn't encompass all of it," Hamer said.
In any case, as a city staffer maintaining and evaluating the database of projects, "we're trying to address the needs of both the citizens and elected officials," Hamer said, adding, "we may come forward with a recommendation that is always subject to the elected officials and what they believe is most important to the public."
Hamer took part in a reform effort in 2008 that was triggered when the Tulsa City Council began pushing to fund a capital project and city staff "didn't know the project existed," he said.
Hamer described the subsequent reform effort in a case study published in 2009 by the American Planning Association, writing that it involved a "culture change" in Tulsa.
The case study included some revealing "lessons learned" Hamer shared with fellow planners.
Hamer wrote how planners were "able to expose how factions within the government can dominate the allocation of resources, continually shaping the city's physical environment. ... Over a period of years, staff members can become very adept at exploiting relationships with elected officials and board members to direct resources toward their departmental priorities."
He also noted that "local governments are unlikely to acknowledge true long-term maintenance costs, unless planners and financial analysts insist that they be considered."
Hamer wrote that while capital improvement prioritization must be "objective," planners should "expect challenges."
"Let's face it, capital investment decisions are political, but planners must navigate the political process while maintaining an air of objectivity," Hamer wrote. "It is hoped that this case's description of how Tulsa navigated these various issues and challenges will give planners a wake-up call about the need for more sustainable infrastructure decisions and allow them to anticipate some of the obstacles that stand in the way."
Yet even attempting to follow the criteria established in 2008 isn't easy.
Those criteria identify two types of projects: expansion projects, and rehabilitation or replacement projects.
Hamer wrote in his case study that expansion projects are defined as "the expansion of the footprint of existing facilities or infrastructure, or the construction of new facilities or infrastructure."
The policy establishes three criteria for evaluating these expansion projects: "return on tax dollars/investment," "linkages and leveraging" (related to a desire to relate projects to each other to save money and boost efficiency), and "alignment with city's strategic initiatives" (which in turn relate to things like economic development and public safety).
However, most capital projects aren't classified as "expansion" projects, but as replacement and rehabilitation projects, Hamer said in an interview.
These replacement and rehab projects are sorted into "tiers." To be placed in "Tier I," which has the highest priority, a project must have "pressing funding needs," which might involve health and safety, for example.
This policy, was established by then-Mayor Kathy Taylor, who was also involved in setting up regular meetings between city staff and the mayor's office. Hamer said these meetings have continued under Mayor Dewey Bartlett.
The lines between different types of projects can sometimes be blurred. Hamer said he wasn't immediately sure if the records project will be classified as an "expansion" effort, which would involve an analysis of any "return on investment" from replacing the system.
One expansion project likely to get consideration for funding involves establishing a new bus rapid transit system along Peoria Avenue.
Hamer said it's difficult to establish a clear "return on investment" for such a project. The take from fares would not begin to cover expenses, he noted, adding that it's hard to quantify things like "air quality mitigation, not having as much traffic on the street."
The criteria say nothing about prioritizing a project based on how long it's been in development. Neither do they say anything about making sure spending is distributed throughout the geography of the city, but Bynum said that's a concern of his.
A map put together by the city shows that the large majority of streets with an overcapacity of traffic are located in the southern part of the city.
Bynum said other parts of the city have strong needs, just different ones from south Tulsa. Tools that rate pavement quality are very important, Bynum said.
"North Tulsa and midtown have the lowest rating as far as overall street quality. There's going to need to be a good balance between widening roads in newer parts of the city but having decent streets in older parts of the city," he said.
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