POSTED ON JULY 4, 2007:
As private money dusts off and jazzes up an existing river development plan, County Assessor says public tax burden is "maxed out".
The river development proposal is to implement parts of the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan along 25 miles of the 42 mile plan.
While Tulsa seems to be abuzz with the recently announced plans to finally develop along the Arkansas River, at least one voice is urging caution as Tulsa voters potentially prepare to go to the polls this fall to decide on the project.
The proposal is to implement parts of the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan along 25 miles of the 42-mile plan, including constructing low water dams, stabilizing the banks, acquiring land for private development, constructing pedestrian crossings at 61st and 41st streets and various and sundry other bells and whistles to provide infrastructure and beautify the land along the river.
And all this for the low, low price of $277 million, which private investors--namely, the George Kaiser Foundation and partners--would match with more than $100 million in private development.
County Commissioner and River Development Head Cheerleader Randi Miller said a 0.4 percent sales tax previously approved by county voters in 2003 as part of the Vision 2025 package could fund the public portion of the project.
The tax was originally intended to provide incentives to lure Boeing to Tulsa, but was never collected.
Miller said the $100 million offered up by private investors is "a once in a lifetime opportunity" to finally bring about the river development so long discussed in Tulsa but never materializing.
She also promised that taxpayers will reap tenfold in economic benefits what they sow in taxes.
Tulsa County Assessor and all-around-party-pooper Ken Yazel, on the other hand, doesn't seem quite so optimistic about the proposal.
He said he wholeheartedly supports river development, but he's not such a big fan of raising taxes to do it.
"Whatever the taxpayers decide, I'll support, but I feel like we've maxed out our credit card," said Yazel.
"My concern is that we're the highest taxed county in the state--if you look at sales and property taxes, they've essentially doubled, and that's without even passing judgment on how they're spent," he explained.
County sales tax collections in 2006 amounted to almost $750 million, which Yazel said was quite a jump for a ten-year period with only $435 million collected in 1996.
City sales tax collections are also on the rise, he said, with $191 million collected in 2006 compared $152 million in 1996.
Yazel also noted that millage rates in Tulsa County are higher than anywhere else in the state at 120.49 per $1,000 in 2006.
That's compared to 98.83 for the state average and 107.81 for Oklahoma County.
At $495 million total tax dollars collected in 2006, Tulsa County collected about 97 percent of the amount collected in Oklahoma County for the same year, which was $509 million.
However, the population of Tulsa County is roughly only 85 percent of Oklahoma County's population.
Meanwhile, Yazel said Tulsa citizens aren't getting a very good return some of the investments made with those tax dollars.
"We've got a grocery store closing in a TIF (tax increment financing) district, and that should be of concern to us as taxpayers," he said, referring to the announced closure of Albertson's in North Tulsa.
He also said the One Technology Center is located in another TIF district, and if the city buys the building it will take half a million dollars off the tax rolls.
Yazel said he believes the city and county have arrived at this overly burdensome state of taxation because individual tax increases are pitched to the public for a vote without showing them within the context of previous tax increases.
"They tend to home in on one little element that they want without thinking about how it's going to add to all the other tax increases that came before it," he said.
Taxation Without Representation?
The latest feel good buzz over river development, Yazel said, is "one more indication of how the local people get concerned about an issue and vote it in without looking at the big picture--the people have been convinced that they ought to vote for this bond issue, and they're not looking at how much they're already taxed."
Yazel said he thinks the county government should invest in low water dams and other infrastructure improvements to the river, but he doesn't think it should raise taxes to do it.
"The government should pay for infrastructure; it shouldn't come from taxpayers," he said.
However, with an operating budget of only $62 million, Miller said it just isn't possible include capital improvements, especially those on the order of $277 million.
Also, she said she's "looked and looked" for other sources of funding.
"I've checked every public funding option available," Miller said, from federal grants to state funding sources, and the 0.4 percent sales tax is the only option available.
She said there's a miniscule possibility that some federal funding sources might be available, and if any open up she said the amount would be subtracted from the county's share of the bill, but the commissioner said she isn't holding her breath.
"When Hurricane Katrina hit, that diverted a lot of federal funds," Miller said.
She said she and fellow commissioners plan to hold public hearings over the next 60 days (by the time this goes to print, around 55 days) to get constituents' feedback on the proposal, and if it's positive she said they'll let Tulsans vote on it in October or November.
If it's approved by Tulsa voters, Miller said the tax would end after seven years.
"I would make sure safeguards are in place--I am not inclined to continue that tax forever," she said.
Miller reiterated that the tax would only last for seven years when asked if this project could open the door for something on the order of "The Channels," which was proposed last year, also with a promise of $100 million in private sector contributions if the public came up with $600 million.
"This (tax) is for a specific purpose for a specific length of time," the commissioner assured.
Contrary to Yazel's characterization of the Tulsa Metro Area's ever-growing tax burden, Miller said, "If you look at the overall tax base, we're actually lower than everyone else."
However, if the river is developed according to the latest plan, that tax base will grow when out-of-towners come to spend their tax dollars along the river, she said.
But, she warned, if Tulsa County doesn't take advantage of the latest offer by private investors, there might never be another chance at river development.
"No one has worked on the river longer and harder than I, and I truly believe this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and if we don't allow citizens to vote on it, we're guilty of not allowing them that opportunity," Miller said.
Yazel, though, said, "I think this county needs to develop this river, but my main concern is educating the people before they vote on another tax."
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