POSTED ON MAY 16, 2007:
Annexation Angst Over
City and Fair Board agree to last-minute compromise
"The fact that it appeared the city and county governements wouldn't work together" was a deterrent to annexing the Fairgrounds, Mayor Taylor said.
The route was a little different but the destination was the same: the City Council voted last week to amend the effective date to annex the county fairgrounds, making Mayor Kathy Taylor's previously announced intention to veto the original July annexation date unnecessary.
All parties involved--the Mayor, the City Council and the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority (a.k.a. the Fair Board), with varying degrees of enthusiasm, have approved a plan to wait until Jan. 1, 2009 for the city to annex Expo Square.
Also, any exhibitors whose current contracts extend past the effective annexation date and who bring in more than $20 million to the Tulsa-area economy will receive a 3 percent tax rebate to offset the city's sales tax.
In the meantime, the Fair Board has agreed to reimburse the city for fire protection for the intervening months and to make no zoning changes at the fairgrounds, as well as to contribute $50,000 a year to the Tulsa Convention and Visitor's Bureau for regional marketing.
The ongoing saga surrounding the fairgrounds and its eventual annexation by the city began last November when now-Council Chairman Roscoe Turner of District 3 proposed it as a means to offset the City of Tulsa's ongoing budget crisis by collecting the 3-cent sales tax there.
Since then, the issue has erupted into a storm of controversy as county officials vehemently and publicly opposed it because, among other stated reasons, the sales tax would drive away business, they said.
What was originally a "no brainer" (in the words of District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen) became a hotly contested issue between the city and county governments, with the Mayor trying to appease both sides as some members of the public petitioned against the move, echoing arguments advanced by county officials.
Eventually, some councilors were won over, but not enough.
Despite delays and protests, the Council voted 5-4 in April to annex the fairgrounds, which would have taken effect in July of this year.
Weeks after the decision, as predicted by attorney and Fair Board member Clark Brewster, representatives of the Arabian Horse Association--one of the fairgrounds' major moneymakers--signaled that they might just take their business elsewhere once their contract expires, in light of the new arrangement.
Within days of that development, Tulsa County Commissioners Randi Miller, Fred Perry and John Smaligo dispatched a letter to Taylor, urging her to veto outright the council's decision to annex.
In the letter, the commissioners reiterated all of their previously stated arguments--loss of business, cost to the city for law enforcement, etc.--all of which have been just as vigorously disputed by annexation proponents.
One point they raised that no one disputes, though, is that of the potential political ramifications of Taylor's decision.
"A couple of weeks ago you told Commissioner Perry that you don't like the idea of a veto since you need to work with the Council," the letter reads. "You are concerned about the Council Chairman (Turner) and Vice Chairman (District 7 Councilor John Eagleton) who voted 'Yes.' As former legislators, Commissioner Perry and Commissioner Smaligo can tell you that the Councilors will forget the veto soon and move on to other things. Don't forget they need you also. This veto would demonstrate decisiveness with a measure that is unpopular."
Indeed, the commissioners cited "polls, petitions, letters to the editor and general 'buzz' around town" demonstrating that "annexation is not popular" with 80-90 percent of voters.
According to annexation proponents, and even some opponents, though, that "buzz" is largely due to the antics of the commissioners in their anti-annexation publicity campaign.
"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 District 2 Councilor Rick Westcott when the matter was debated in April.
Westcott wound up voting against annexation, not so much because he bought the county's arguments, but because most of his constituents did.
"I voted 'no' because the clear 99 percent of e-mails and phone calls I got were against annexation, and we should have more solid facts before voting against constituents' clear cut opinions," he said.
Eagleton 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."
The Mayor didn't say exactly if she agreed with the councilors' assessments of the county officials' publicity campaign, but said, "I will tell you that I didn't choose to play this out in the media, but I got lots of feedback from members of the public in response to some of the county's statements."
"Public officials have to listen to the facts and make an informed decision... but I do think it was played out in the media too much," said Taylor.
And making an "informed decision" was one of the sticking points through the course of the annexation debate, as city officials and others have often faulted the county for not making the data necessary for that decision as accessible as they would have liked, which was also one of the issues addressed in the commissioners' correspondence.
"This letter is not being sent to the media. We have given you and the City Councilors every bit of data at our disposal you have asked for. What was not available from county or fairgrounds files, we have gotten from the Oklahoma Tax Commission. There are no outstanding requests for information before us nor have there been since late March. Consequently, your public and private statements about us 'withholding information' are puzzling," the letter read.
When asked what information had been withheld, Taylor said, "We just didn't have the full information and maybe they didn't either, but until I asked the question we didn't know the amount of the City of Tulsa Economic Development tax that went toward incentivizing events to come to the fairgrounds."
Another recurring theme in the ongoing annexation debate was the damage inflicted to city/county relations, of which the commissioners also reminded Taylor in their exhortation to veto.
"Intergovernmental relations have been hurt by the annexation initiative and it certainly is not going to help in the future with many important areas on the horizon," the commissioners wrote. "Of course, if annexation takes place, we will do what we can to make it work but a veto is the appropriate action. You will need to work with the three County Commissioners, the five county elected officials and the Fair Board in the future on inter-governmental areas. A veto of annexation will certainly help; a non-veto will harm the relationship."
Within a week of the correspondence, the Mayor announced her intention to veto the annexation ordinance and offer her compromise for the Council's consideration instead.
The commissioners' epistle had nothing to do with her decision, she said.
"I've had staff working on the analysis since before the letter came to me, and most of its points had been discussed before," said Taylor.
One of the strongest of those points was the exhortation to preserve city/county relations.
"The city and county governments have to work together because we have overlapping responsibilities--we govern the same citizens," the Mayor explained as part of the basis of her compromise.
"I was trying to recruit Boeing to the area, and dysfunction in government impacts their decision to locate here," she said.
"The fact that it appeared the city and county governments wouldn't work together" was a deterrent, Taylor also said.
The compromise also removed a deterrent to the U.S. National Arabian and Half-Arabian Champion Horse Show coming to Tulsa.
"This is great news for our commercial and horse exhibitors," said Lance Walters, AHA vice president and chairman of the U.S. Nationals Show Commission, when he heard the news.
Miller also seemed pleased with the arrangement.
"This is an issue that has caused serious concern among citizens and among fair exhibitors," she said. "At the heart of it was our concern for the continued prosperity of venues at Expo Square. This agreement will keep those exhibitors in place."
Before Taylor would have vetoed the annexation ordinance, the City Council went ahead and voted 7-2 to approve her compromise plan.
Westcott and Christiansen cast the two "nay" votes.
"On behalf of my constituents, I'm offended," said Westcott in explanation of his opposition.
"We received this document at about 4:30 that day and I didn't have time to discuss the compromise with any of my constituents, and they were strongly against annexation. They were cut out of the deal and not included in the discussion, and as their representative I should have at least been advised of this before I saw it in the newspaper," he said.
However, Westcott also added, "Ultimately, I'm glad the Mayor and the county commissioners were able to resolve their differences and find some middle ground."
The District 2 councilor wasn't the only person who was ambivalent about the arrangement.
"I'm not a happy camper," said the annexation epic's principle architect, who voted in favor of the Mayor's plan.
Turner said he chose the compromise as "the lesser of two evils."
The greater of the two evils would have been an outright veto with no annexation, which the councilor said he couldn't get the six council votes he would need to override it, which would have killed annexation altogether.
Turner said he's glad the issue is finally settled.
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