POSTED ON APRIL 11, 2007:
Council Votes to Annex
After much fear and loathing from the County and Fair Board interests, city reps give thumbs upLeadership Check. Only delay to moving forward on fairgrounds annexation would be veto from Mayor Taylor
Now that the city council has narrowly voted for annexation of the fairgrounds, the ultimate decision now lies with the Mayor--to either veto or let the Council's collective decision stand.
The die has been cast, along with the City Council's votes, and the City of Tulsa will annex the Tulsa County Fairgrounds, barring a veto from Mayor Kathy Taylor, at least.
After a parade of about 20 concerned citizens appeared before them, most of whom spoke in opposition, the City Council narrowly voted last Thursday night to go through with annexing the fairgrounds.
"If the Prophet of Doom turns out to be accurate, we will de-annex in a heartbeat, but I don't think the Prophet of Doom is accurate," said District 7 Councilor and newly elected Council vice-chair John Eagleton, who was among the slight majority of councilors who voted in favor of annexation.
The losing side of the 5-4 vote was comprised of District 2 Councilor Rick Westcott, District 6 Councilor Dennis Troyer, District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen and District 9 Councilor Cason Carter.
Christiansen led the pack of opposing councilors, having publicly announced his planned "nay" vote about a week before in response to an anti-annexation petition drive, the efforts of which were focused mostly on neighborhoods in Councilor Maria Barnes' District 4, which surrounds the fairgrounds.
"This is nothing more than a tax increase," said Christiansen in justification of his opposing vote.
He supported the idea in November, calling it a "no-brainer," when District 3 Councilor Roscoe Turner proposed annexing the fairgrounds so the city could collect its 3-cent sales tax there.
A lot has happened since November, though.
County commissioners were at first somewhat cavalier about the idea, but soon mounted an impassioned campaign against it, both through the media and by direct appeals to the mayor and to City Council members.
Their consistent arguments have been that the tax exemption is a crucial marketing tool drawing vendors, shows, events and patrons to the fairgrounds, and that imposing the 3-cent sales tax would destroy the Expo Square's ability to bring people into Tulsa, which would then cost the city the peripheral revenue from hotel, gas and other expenditures in the surrounding area.
Also, commissioners argued, it would cost the city more than it would make by requiring them to provide police protection and other services.
According to a report issued by the mayor's office in January, collecting the tax on the fairgrounds would bring the city between $389,000 and $1.1 million a year.
However, according to a report recently issued by the Oklahoma Tax Commission, the city would collect only about $338,000.
The mayor's report also indicated that it would cost the city about $500,000 to provide security at the fairgrounds.
The same arguments were cited when the "Stop Annexation" petition drivers announced the results of their door-to-door campaign, calling on city councilors to cease their annexation efforts.
"I am hearing from people in my district and the neighborhood near the fairgrounds that they do not want the city of Tulsa to annex the Tulsa County Fairgrounds... and I respect their wisdom on this matter," said Christiansen in response.
Westcott, who voted with Christiansen, said he didn't buy the arguments advanced by the city and echoed by constituents.
Much of the public's opposition, he said, is the result of undue negative publicity generated by county officials.
"County officials have been in the media a lot and, instead of presenting factual material, in my opinion, they've presented an emotional response," said Westcott.
"This has always been an economic analysis, but there have been a lot of people who've made this far too emotional, and that's been detrimental to the process," he also said.
Westcott voted against annexation, though, because "the evidence of the benefits is not sufficient to outweigh the concerns of constituents," he said.
A pin drop could have been heard in the borderline-uncomfortable silence that ensued during Troyer's delay in voting as he weighed the issue one last time before issuing an ambivalent "no" vote.
There was no hesitation from the five councilors who voted to annex, though.
"This should have been a relatively easy analytical exercise but, instead, it's become an emotional, divisive issue," said District 5 Councilor Bill Martinson.
He reminded members of the public (including County Commissioners Randi Miller, Fred Perry and John Smaligo--all of whom attended the hearing) and fellow councilors that the city is in a financial crunch, and that not collecting revenue from the fairgrounds would be "leaving money on the table."
"The bottom line is that there's at least $330,000 of revenue available when the city's strapped for money," said Barnes in justification of her "yes" vote.
She said she wanted to be able to tell her constituents that she and other city officials are doing everything they can to improve the condition of the city's streets and parks.
Martinson said the notion that loss of the tax exemption would drive away business is "a legitimate concern that remains unsubstantiated. That is some of the information we're still waiting on."
The lack of information to which Martinson referred was a point of contention with county officials that other speakers also raised during the hearing.
"If the county and the fairgrounds are a business, there should be an investigation, because they've been less than forthcoming--we shouldn't have to beg for information from the county," said Greg Jennings, one of the small minority of private citizens to speak in favor of annexation.
Eagleton expanded on Westcott's statement and said much of the public outcry against the planned annexation is a "product of false public statements" by county officials.
"It's unfortunate that some people haven't been completely truthful in some of the public statements they've made," he said.
District 1 Councilor Jack Henderson called on county officials to "stop confusing the people."
Turner said the commissioners' tactics were "nothing more than a method of organized delay."
Regarding Christiansen's statement that annexation would be "nothing more than a tax increase," Eagleton echoed an argument raised that night by Urban Tulsa Weekly contributing writer Michael Bates, which is that annexation would not equate to a tax increase, but would only close a loophole currently exploited by vendors and patrons at Expo Square.
Martinson said he believes the state's estimate to be too low for how much revenue the city would gain by annexing the fairgrounds.
"The $338,000 is only the reported sales tax from special events," he said.
"Yea"-voters also said the city would not be responsible for the $500,000 the mayor's office said it would cost to provide police protection, citing a recent statement issued by City Council staff attorney Drew Rees.
His legal was that the city would not be primarily responsible for security at the fairgrounds. The situation would be the same, he said, as for any other private entity hosting an event within city limits--they would be primarily responsible for security but, if a situation arises for which they are not equipped, they could call the Tulsa Police Department for aid.
Also, it was pointed out that the city already provides fire and emergency services to the area, but without the benefit of sales tax revenue to fund those services.
Lawyer on Trial
Sparks flew and fangs were bared when attorney and Fair Board member Clark Brewster raised another argument in addition to the previously insisted-upon objections to annexation.
He said annexation, and the 3-cent sales tax to ensue as a result, would amount to a breach of contract with long-time vendors, such as the Arabian Horse Show, who would wind up paying more to do business than previously agreed.
Eagleton had little patience for Brewster's argument.
He pointed out the specific paragraph and clause of the contract to which the attorney referred, which specified that vendors are subordinated to the ordinances of the City of Tulsa.
"Maybe we can hire you for our representation when we're in litigation for breach of contract," fired back Brewster.
Eagleton as much as called Brewster a liar, and said it was "shocking" that he would raise such an argument since he should have been aware that the contract would not be breached by the imposition of the sales tax.
Now that the City Council has narrowly voted for annexation of the fairgrounds, the ultimate decision now lies with the mayor--to either veto or let the Council's collective decision stand.
"(The City Council) have analyzed the data and the financial impact annexation could have on the city and I appreciate all their efforts," said Taylor in a statement issued shortly after the hearing.
"I know the councilors made their decision based on the best information at hand. In the coming days, I will meet with the Council and review the information that is available," she also said.
So, will the mayor veto the Council's decision?
"I've heard emphatically that she will, and I've heard emphatically that she will not, and both from equally credible sources," said Eagleton the next day.
The course of action the mayor will take is anyone's guess, at this point.
Equally uncertain is when the fairgrounds will be annexed.
Had the emergency clause been approved, the land would have been annexed immediately, but since it wasn't, there is a delay.
Eagleton said he believes the annexation will occur 60 days after the vote (on June 4th), or on July 1st. He and other councilors, he said, are conferring with legal staff to find out for sure.
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