POSTED ON AUGUST 1, 2007:
River Battle Rages
Lines are being drawn, and the debate isn't about the river itself, but how the plan ought to be implemented
This coming Thursday, in all likelihood, the Tulsa County Commission will pass a ballot resolution and schedule an October 9 vote to raise the county-wide sales tax by 0.4 cents on the dollar. The money will go to pay for the two low-water dams and Zink Lake repairs that were promised as part of the Vision 2025 tax, for two pedestrian bridges, an undefined downtown connector, and land acquisition for commercial development.
By setting an election, the commissioners will generate a divisive and unnecessary two-month fight. The debate that ought to be happening now, before a vote is scheduled, won't happen at all.
Already the battle lines are being drawn. Lining up in opposition are city officials in Broken Arrow and the non-river suburbs, those who oppose tax increases on principle, and those who want to reserve tax increases for public safety and streets.
The opposition will also include those who resent being taxed twice to pay for putting water in the river.
The point of contention is not the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan. Nearly everyone agrees that regional planning agency INCOG did a thorough job of collecting public input and turning it into a comprehensive plan covering the length of the river. Everyone wants to "make our river happen."
The divisive issue is how implementation of the river plan ought to be funded. That's a debate we ought to be having now, before an election is scheduled, but it looks like it won't happen at all. The county commissioners, we are told, have already made up their minds to ask voters for a tax increase.
Broken Arrow's mayor and city council have already spoken against Commissioner Randi Miller's tax increase proposal. In an op-ed in the Sunday paper, Broken Arrow Mayor Wade McCaleb wrote,
"There is a ceiling on the amount of sales tax that citizens will vote to tax themselves, regardless of the merits of the project proposed. The county proposes to nudge all cities in Tulsa County closer to that ceiling, regardless of the proximity of any city to the Arkansas River, or any individual city's needs or desires. By using a countywide tax to fund river projects, Tulsa County preempts cities' taxing authority and might preclude them from successfully initiating projects in their own jurisdictions..."
McCaleb indicated that officials in Glenpool, Skiatook, and Collinsville share Broken Arrow's objections.
An alternative approach that eliminates most of the objections was outlined in this column last week: Tulsa County would keep its Vision 2025 promises and build the two new low-water dams and fix Zink Lake using that existing tax revenue stream, which is sufficient to cover the estimated $65 to $75 million for those efforts and may be enough for all the "water in the river" projects. Other projects, such as pedestrian bridges and land acquisition for commercial development, would be funded by municipalities as they see fit.
Tulsa City Councilor John Eagleton set forth a similar plan, extending the Vision 2025 tax if necessary to cover the costs. Someone writing at meeciteewurkor.com under the pseudonym "TulTellitarian" has done his own financial analysis of the money available in the existing Vision 2025 tax, with a particular focus on bond-related costs.
But this approach was quickly shot down by Commissioner Randi Miller and by the editorialists at the daily paper, who seem threatened by the thought of not using river improvements as a lever to ratchet up the sales tax rate.
Miller's counterarguments seem plausible but fall apart at close examination.
Miller's claim: The county commissioners couldn't possibly have promised to build low-water dams in Vision 2025, because the river plan wasn't yet completed.
Fact: The ballot resolution that she and her fellow commissioners approved anticipates the river plan's completion: "Construct two low water dams on Arkansas River the locations of which will be determined in the Arkansas River Corridor Plan." In other words, approve the Vision 2025 tax, and as soon as we figure out where two dams should go, we'll build them.
Miller's claim: Everyone knew there wasn't enough money in Vision 2025 to actually put water in the river. The dams were dependent on federal matching funds, which didn't materialize.
Fact: The ballot resolution accounts for the likelihood that the cost estimates it contains are inaccurate, and in that resolution the county commissioners committed to using excess tax revenues to complete any projects which had an insufficient initial allocation. And since the election, commissioners have expressed an intention to use surplus revenues to replaced the hoped-for federal funds.
This commitment to use excess funds to finish all projects was affirmed during the Vision 2025 campaign by then-Commissioner Bob Dick. A July 23, 2003, story in the daily paper about the potential for excess tax receipts reported that he "said the Vision 2025 package was also designed to ensure no project gets left behind due to a lack of funding."
As recently as two years ago, both Dick and Miller voiced support for using excess Vision 2025 revenues to complete the promised river projects. In a June 17, 2005, newspaper story about a projected surplus, Miller said, "If there's any money that's available, in my opinion because we do not have enough for the dams, then I'm going to go with river development."
In the same story, Dick said, "It's too soon to start spending money above those things that have already been identified. But there's one real easy one, to say if we do have that, I think a high priority would be on the river."
Miller's claim: Using Vision 2025 funds would require waiting seven or eight years to begin work. It would be impossible to borrow against those future revenues to start work now.
Fact: All of Vision 2025 has been financed by borrowing against projected future revenues. Unlike the City of Tulsa's third-penny sales tax, which until recently funded projects only as revenues came in, the county commissioners, acting as the Tulsa County Industrial Authority, started borrowing against future tax revenues before the tax even went into effect.
The commissioners' stated intention was to get the projects going and completed within the first six years of the 13 year tax. And they've been talking for a couple of years about finding a way to spend the surplus now.
In that same June 2005 story, John Piercey, who has handled nearly all the bond issues for county government in recent years, said the surplus would be collected in the final years of the tax period. "The question becomes: Is there a way to have those funds early? We're working on that."
Some of that surplus has already been obtained and released to cover cost overruns on the BOk Center.
If Miller and her colleagues had the political will to put water in the river without raising taxes, they could find a way to make it happen.
Our two new county commissioners should know that. Fred Perry was chairman of the Transportation Committee in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Just last year, he played a key role in passage of a plan to allocate hundreds of millions of new dollars for Oklahoma's roads and bridges without raising taxes. John Smaligo was a supporter of that effort, which was spearheaded by Rep. Mark Liotta.
But the political will doesn't seem to be there. The commissioners will almost certainly vote Thursday to schedule an October 9 election. Supporters of the new tax will pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into a slick PR campaign, confident that they can get the majority of votes they need, even at the cost of feeding public cynicism by brazenly asking citizens to tax themselves twice for the same projects. Those who prefer an alternative funding approach for river improvements will be dismissed as anti-river, anti-progress, anti-Tulsa.
The same old playbook may work again, but the antagonism of officials and residents in the county's second largest city and the booming northern suburbs changes the political calculus. We will go through a contentious 60 days, tax promoters will spend a fortune, political capital will be squandered, and in the end the county commissioners may find themselves back at square one, finding a way to finance river projects without a new sales tax.
The commissioners are saying that the people have a right to decide. If they mean that, they should give us three choices on that ballot: 1. raise taxes as Commissioner Miller prefers; 2. use Vision 2025 overages for the promised low-water dams and Zink Lake repairs; 3. don't spend money on the river at all.
Option 2 is my preference, and it would be acceptable to opponents of higher sales tax rates and to the cities and towns left out of Miller's plan.
There is a way to move forward with implementation of the Arkansas River master plan, a way that avoids division and allows consensus. I hope the commissioners will give Tulsa County voters the opportunity to choose that way.
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A17741