POSTED ON OCTOBER 3, 2007:
Vote Yes group gets 4th Graders' approval
River Rehash. As the campaign winds down this week toward a Tuesday vote, the issue in most informed voters minds is still fraught with uncertainty.
"If you don't vote for this, you're holding us back," a wide-eyed and precocious 10-year-old has repeatedly admonished Tulsa County voters over the past several weeks via river tax cheerleaders' TV campaign ads.
As the Oct. 9 election day fast approaches, he and several other apparent child prodigies appear in the commercials, informing voters of the wondrous benefits in store should they approve the seven-year, 4/10 of a cent countywide sales tax increase proposed by the County Commission to provide $282 million for river development projects.
As the campaign winds down this week toward a Tuesday vote, the issue in most informed voters minds is still fraught with uncertainty as to why this plan was put forward, why is it so urgent and how a prettier looking river is going to boost the Metro economy nearly tenfold to the tune of $2.8 billion.
There are lots of unanswered questions.
As readers will recall, the issue landed center-stage in the region's political theater in mid-June when local energy and banking mogul George Kaiser and a handful of other city moneybags offered up $100 million (now grown to $117 million) in private donations for river projects as incentive for the public to pony up with more than twice as much in taxes to pretty up the river.
County Commissioners Randi Miller, Fred Perry and John Smaligo quickly answered by unanimously approving a resolution to put the question before the voting public.
Lately the "Our River Yes" campaign has created a sense of urgency as the vote draws near. Voters are urged in tv, radio and direct mail ads to take advantage of this "once in a lifetime" opportunity to secure millions of dollars in gifts by voting upon themselves millions of dollars in taxes to pretty-up the river. The promise is a ten-to-one return the Tulsa-area economy will enjoy from the nearly $300 million public/private investment.
That return was first offered as a projection by Commissioner Miller when the pro-river tax publicity machine first took off, and then as a certainty by the Tulsa Metro Chamber.
But when Chamber reps publicly signed off on that projection in August (see "Mining the River" from the Aug. 30-Sept. 5 UTW at HYPERLINK "http://www.urbantulsa.com"; www.urbantulsa.com), no one on hand at the public announcement was able to explain to UTW how that $282 million will automatically turn into $2.8 billion.
As Bob Ball, the Chamber's economic research manager, elucidated, first at a press conference and then to the Tulsa City Council, the $282 million plus the (then) $111 million in donations would attract at least another $450 million in private investment, amounting to a total of $786 million in capital investment.
That public/private combo will, according to Ball's projections multiply into an economic impact of almost $1.5 billion, which will include $1.1 billion in labor income for 9,450 construction jobs over the seven-year life of the sales tax.
Another $1.3 billion in the mixed retail and economic development to ensue will add up to $2.8 billion by 2014, he said at the time (that figure makes its appearance as "$3.5 billion" in the TV ads, though--they say the camera adds ten pounds to people, but for economic packages, it apparently adds $700 million), as well about 9,500 permanent jobs.
"I really didn't understand how they arrived at the money and employment numbers," Councilor Bill Christiansen later told UTW.
"It would probably be advantageous if there were a simple way to explain all that to the electorate so voters can understand," Christiansen told Ball and other Chamber reps at the time.
Out of the Mouths of Babes
That was before the pro-river tax camp put their child economic experts in front of the camera to simplify it for all concerned, though, so UTW went straight to the source and asked Ball to explain to us how he got through to the kids.
Since the $786 million investment was foundational to all else, Ball was asked where he got the $450 million he added to the public funds and private donations.
He said he based it on "casual conversations" with various investors--none of whom he would identify, and none who committed any specific amounts of capital to any particular projects.
So, whether these investors were coming anyway or if they would definitely only come if the river tax passes, or if they even exist at all, we'll just have to entrust to Ball and the kids.
Next, he was asked how that figure turned into $2.8 billion at the end of his calculations.
Ball didn't exactly use the word "magic," but to those of us without the surefire economic know-how that gets someone a gig endorsing tax proposals at any age, he may as well have.
His precise words were "matrix algebra."
When pressed, he said he used the IMPLAN economic analysis model, created by the Stillwater, Minn.-based IMPLAN Group, to calculate the economic impact.
Ball's prognostications were based on successfully "enhancing the river" by means of those public and private funds, though.
Topping the "Our River Yes" campaign's "Top 10 Reasons to Vote Yes" is "Water in the River." "Ensuring the river flows with water" is listed as the top priority for the $282 million.
About $155 million of the tax package would go toward low-water dams and channel modifications for that purpose.
That might make the Arkansas River look more like, say, a well-traveled romantic's idea of how a river should look, but will it be enough for hard-nosed businessmen to flock to it make it their habitat.
Sounds Simple, to Everybody But Mother Nature
"Even with the dams in place, we have limited ability to modify the flow of the river. We can't create more water when there isn't any," said Kevin Stubbs, a fish and wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
He serves on an advisory committee on Arkansas River development to the Army Corps of Engineers.
While his comments about the project's dependence on factors beyond even the richest philanthropist or cutest little economic expert's control have obvious implications for the overarching purpose of beautifying the Arkansas River, his remarks mainly pertained to environmental concerns.
When media reports quoted river consultant Gaylon Pinc saying, "Development will cause no harm to fish and wildlife . . . " Stubbs felt the need to speak out to UTW and other outlets (see "Unhealthy Development?" in the Sept. 20-26 UTW at HYPERLINK "http://www.urbantulsa.com"; www.urbantulsa.com).
Pinc is a former environmental consultant for the Indian Nation Council of Governments (INCOG--the group that put together the river development plan), but is now in the employ of the County and the Corps.
Stubbs said the analysis used by the Corps, which Pinc referenced for his comments, "did not represent real world conditions."
Some of those "real world conditions" were seen during last year's drought when water flow slowed to a trickle, when it existed at all, which no amount of clever engineering through low-water dams will correct when it inevitably happens again.
Stubbs explained that the study in question assumed the river's flow would remain at least at a level known to environmental gurus as "7Q2," which is a federally-defined standard for the lowest threshold of water flow for the dilution of contaminants.
He said that standard is 696 cubic feet per second (CFS), but the river was often at less than 50 or 35 CFS during last year's drought, and is bound to be that low at some point again in the future.
The Corps' study was based on estimates of average flow of the river when it should have been based on a "worst case scenario" flow, like last year's, Stubbs said.
He said some pools of water to be created by the proposed dams are downstream of a sewage treatment plant (not to mention the oil refineries), which means the pollution won't be cleaned out and diluted without sufficient water flow, which means the "enhancements" to be purchased by taxpayers in the form of large pooled areas of water will, at times, essentially amount to giant stopped-up toilets.
"The Jenks dam is essentially being done for looks--it doesn't provide any benefit, and it will have an adverse effect for fish and wildlife and water quality," said Stubbs.
"Virtually all the species of fish would be adversely affected, as well as the least terns that nest along the river's banks and sand bars, he added.
Depending on Mother Nature's mood and how much water she sends, Stubbs said lowering the dams can offset some of the contamination problems, but it will be impossible to have both good water quality and the high water levels intended by the development projects at all times, and that a monitoring system of some kind should be in place to maintain water quality--something he doesn't think can happen until certain key questions are answered:
"What are the potential impacts of implementing this?"
"What are you planning to do to mitigate the environmental impacts?"
"What budget will there be for that?"
"Is there a timetable?"
These are just some examples.
Stubbs said these questions aren't likely to be answered before Oct. 9.
"The vote is really too premature for anyone to able to make an informed decision on this," he said.
So, the project if developed as planned will, according to Stubbs, most certainly kill fish and drive least terns away.
And maybe a few bald eagles.
Maybe it'll make the river look better.
Depends on the weather.
Which is fine--the weather is nothing if not predictable here in Oklahoma.
So Much for So Little
And, assuming the world won't run out of fish or least terns, what are we really risking, at the end of the day?
Less than half a cent on the dollar.
"Come on! Even I have that!" chides one carefree little girl in the commercial, who, despite her freakish grasp of complex economic processes, probably doesn't have a mortgage or health care costs to pay.
But, does that little girl live in Councilor Roscoe Turner's district?
"I happen to represent people you evidently can't equate with," the councilor told representatives of Tulsa's Young Professionals when they appeared before the City Council in August to endorse the river tax.
"I represent people who are barely living from day-to-day. I don't have any driving a Mercedes and all this good stuff. I have people who can't afford gas. You're asking these people to take what little money they've got for gas to put on the river in sales tax.
"But they need that sales tax for money to drive to Owasso to get food, since they don't have a grocery store where they live," he told the TYPros delegation.
"Evidently, you've got the money to do the things you need to do. You've got time to go down to the river to do these things. The people I represent are worried about where they're going to get food, though," Turner added.
However, it should be noted that the resolution to be decided on Oct. 9 includes a $25 annual tax rebate for seniors and low-income households--if they can wait until tax season for those groceries.
Except, Turner is among numerous other river tax opponents who don't think the Tulsa County government should even be in a position to issue such rebates.
"At a time when our streets are deteriorating, schools are failing and crime is rising, the City of Tulsa would be foolish to surrender more taxing authority to the county," he said.
"The county tax is bad public policy. It places cities within Tulsa County at the mercy of county government and diverts vital resources the cities may need in order to fix basic infrastructure," Turner continued.
But then, those little kids on tv look pretty smart, and they seem to know what's best for the future of Tulsa.
Do we really want to hold them back?
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