POSTED ON APRIL 3, 2013:
Streets, Safety and Simplicity
Two city services stand out to citizens
When a city has a "wish list" of $1.4 billion dollars in short- and long-term capital requests, how do you effectively make a dent in meeting those needs? What's the best way to fund the building and rebuilding of a city, and how do you convince the taxpayers that the projects are worthy and the public officials are trustworthy? These are the challenges being debated today by the mayor and city council.
Historically, Tulsa has had two approaches: the slower pay as you go approach using sales tax and the faster advanced funding approach by selling bonds to get the money quicker and get the projects started sooner. Some argue that the sales tax pay as you go approach is the more fiscally prudent approach since you don't pay the interest and costs that come with bond issues.
The flip side of that argument is that the longer you wait to accumulate the money for the projects, the more the project costs will increase due to inflation, so you don't really save any money in the long term. And the pay as you go approach based upon sales tax is always subject to the recessionary effects on sales tax collections. When consumer spending slows down, so do projects funded with sales tax.
The days of funding the building of a city and the operation of a city based solely on two cents of sales tax or money from water and sewer charges ended back in 1980 when Mayor Jim Inhofe launched the one cent of additional sales tax for capital projects only. Since then, the city has picked up an additional 0.167 of a cent when Tulsa County's 4 to Fix the County sales tax expired but the city kept it in place.
Now the debate begins on what to fund, when to fund it, and how to fund it. As big as the "wish list" is, the answer to "what to fund" isn't that difficult. The citizens have said repeatedly in community meetings and surveys: it's streets and safety, two of the core services a local government must provide.
Some public officials think putting the funding of these two core services together on a ballot would be confusing to the citizens. The thinking goes that the citizens won't know what they are voting for and will turn everything down because they can't tell the difference in paying for streets and paying for police and firefighters.
To hold that position is somewhat of an insult to the intelligence of the frequent voter. A simple question on street projects (equally balanced throughout every council district) and a simple question that provides stabilized funding for police and fire is not a complicated proposition for anyone. Everyone knows what a street is and why they need repairs. And everyone knows that more policemen and firefighters, with the right equipment, add to the safety and protection of everyone. This is neither rocket science nor a complicated proposal.
Some who oppose putting these two propositions together take the position that the public safety needs can and should be adequately funded through the annual budget process. But the history of past decisions made by past mayors and councils tells us that never happens. And the reason it doesn't happen is that when you put public safety into a gigantic pot of needs, there is no prioritization. You have dozens of departments with hundreds of needs and wants competing against each other. And when the recessionary effects hit the general fund, every department, including public safety, takes a hit.
The best example we have of where a dedicated stream of funding goes for a core service is the water and sewer department. By relying upon the water and sewer charges the utility departments can predict revenue, predict expenses, and know it will have the money it needs to do what is necessary.
If that approach has worked well for our water and sewer services why wouldn't it work for our public safety core services? Why should we not adequately protect the funding needs of public safety with a dedicated source of existing revenue? Dedicating the 0.167 cent tax to public safety makes good sense and is not confusing to anyone. And by making this small portion of a sales tax dedicated to public safety we would start to see results very quickly.
Unlike capital projects which get funded one year but don't get finished for many years, funding public safety with a dedicated source would allow our public safety managers to get started right away on planning for academies, buying equipment, keeping the helicopters flying, and implementing community policing programs and community education.
Having a dedicated source of public safety funding would also take a great expense out of the general fund budget and would free up millions of dollars that could be allocated for other short-term capital expenses and projects in other city departments.
Putting the funding of non-streets capital improvements for buildings, parks, computer equipment, the airport, etc. on a separate ballot at a separate time does make some sense. These projects can become more complex, more challenging to explain, and more difficult for the voters to understand. It may take more time to explain why buildings at the airport need to be repaired, but it takes no time at all for people to understand that streets need to be fixed and police and fire departments have to be adequately manned.
Those that fear voter confusion will be caused with too many issues on a single ballot only have to look down the turnpike to OKC to see that's not how their MAPS program has been so successful. If OKC had followed the piecemeal approach, they would have had dozens of elections to build an arena, rebuild Bricktown, rebuild libraries, and on and on. In that first MAPS election there were many projects on a single ballot that were approved. We had that same success with Vision 2025.
What OKC did with MAPS was to have a very clear, concise, compelling message that resonated with the voters. Easy to say, easy to see, easy to understand. We can do the same with a streets/safety package. It's easy to see and understand that streets and safety are the most vital services to be supported. It's simply vote yes to be safe -- vote yes for good streets.
The citizens have spoken: It's streets AND public safety, not streets OR public safety. The public has spoken: "Do the basics first and do them now".
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