POSTED ON AUGUST 14, 2013:
A Fork in the Road
Robert Frost's choices seemed less onerous
Yogi Berra, the all-star New York Yankees catcher once said, "When you come to the fork in the road, take it." Yogi was famous for looking at one of life's dilemmas, then giving an explanation on how to get out of it that left you scratching your head.
That seems to be what Tulsans are doing with the dilemma over the multitude of tax and capital improvement plans being talked about by city and county leaders.
Just looking at it by the numbers, we have: nearly a hundred projects costing almost a billion dollars, funded by three tax sources, administered by two governments involving at least one trust authority, overseen by at least 14 elected officials, and supported by dozens of bureaucrats.
This mess is akin to taking on a tangled bunch of Christmas lights. You might find the origin of how this entanglement got started and possibly figure out how it can be straightened out, but you may get so frustrated you decide it's not worth the effort and simply throw it all out.
It would appear where the process took a wrong turn is when the city council approached the fork in the road and made its decision which road to take. There were two roads at the fork, each with a sign.
The sign for Road A read: Down this road, you will just do a street improvement plan in the fall of 2013, funded by general obligation bonds. The rest of the capital projects funded by the third-penny sales tax and the .167 sales tax will be put off until spring 2014 to allow time for the city and county to work out an agreeable framework of spending these tax dollars.
The sign for Road B read: Down this road, you forget what the county and the jail needs might be, forget that the sales taxes don't expire until well into 2014, and put all of the projects the city wants and all the taxes into one proposal that benefit only the city. Then, you fast-track approval of the projects and the renewal of the taxes for a November 2013 election. And, just in case you missed it, all this without a thought about what the county might need, and then you don't tell them.
So far, the city council has given every indication that it is going down Road B. And that's why we have seen what some have described as the "out of the blue" reaction by Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith and County Sheriff Stanley Glanz. The county, understandably, believed that the city would choose Road A and would want to do streets only in 2013, then work with the county on a joint plan for 2014.
The first thing to remember is that all of these projects -- be they street improvements, increasing the number of jail cells, providing a juvenile detention center, park improvements, or pools -- will be funded with either a new or renewed tax. All this funding will come from either property or sales taxes. None of the sales taxes we are currently paying expire in 2013. Not one. So there is no need to rush to the ballot box in 2013 to renew any of them. So why not back off the urgency and forget having a sales tax election in 2013?
Second, streets are, first and foremost, the most important project to be addressed and funded. Historically, this has been done with general-obligation bond issues which are paid for from property taxes. The only election the City of Tulsa should have in the fall of 2013 is an election for street improvements paid for by general-obligation bonds. Since the city has made payments each year against our past bond indebtedness, we should be able to add new bond debt for new street improvements with little to no increase in our property taxes.
Finally, once we've had the street improvement election in November, the city and county leaders should spend between November 2013 and March 2014 meeting to decide on the scope of the projects which a renewed third-penny sales tax and the .0167 sales tax would fund (both these taxes expire in 2014). This would allow for a more coordinated plan of project selection, message development, and a capital campaign strategy where the city and county are actually working together.
This timeline will also allow several other important developments to get behind us. The mayoral election will be over instead of in the middle of the process. We don't need to politicize what is otherwise a non-political capital campaign. The Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority will have had time to finish its outside study and evaluation of what it costs to run the jail, to determine the cost per inmate, and to resolve its other legal and financial issues with other users of the jail. This would allow for obviously needed time for leaders to be in the community explaining the projects, prioritizing them, and building citizen support.
The hopeful news is that it's not too late for the city council to take a sharp turn off of Road B and head back over to Road A. They don't have to make a final decision on what will happen until September. So the election in November could still just be a "streets only" bond issue with a spring 2014 city/county sales tax election on a variety of other projects that have been vetted in the community.
It's time for everyone to step back, take a deep breath, and remember our lessons from kindergarten: Take turns, share, be polite, work together, and be patient.
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