POSTED ON MAY 7, 2008:
The Quiet Election
In case you didn't know, there is a tax vote May 13 and as voters consider giving TCC more money, the most important question is, "How badly do we want our streets fixed?"
There's yet another tax election next Tuesday, but it isn't the expected city vote to fund street rehabilitation. Instead, it's going to be a test of the taxpayers' willingness to prioritize among competing demands for higher tax rates from the tax consumers.
It's also the only opportunity for Tulsa County voters to exercise any control whatsoever over an entity that receives $30 million annually in local support from our property taxes.
Next Tuesday, May 13, at least a few Tulsa County voters will go to the polls to decide whether to grant Tulsa Community College a permanent 24% increase in the property tax rate and, on top of that, whether to approve a $76 million bond issue for our local junior college.
Although this is a county-wide vote, it has nothing to do with the Tulsa County Commissioners or county government. Tulsa Community College is utterly independent of local government. While Tulsa Technology Center and Tulsa, Jenks, Union, and all other K-12 school districts are governed by locally elected boards, the board of regents for TCC is appointed by the Governor of Oklahoma.
TCC is part of the state's byzantine higher education system, which has 14 different boards of regents governing two research universities, 11 regional universities (a.k.a. "double-directional schools," like Northwestern State), 12 community colleges, and another 16 higher-ed centers and special branch campuses, like OU-Tulsa and OSU-Tulsa.
TCC administration hasn't been secretive about the vote -- there's plenty of information about the proposals on the tulsacc.edu website, and last week they announced a campaign to push for passage of the tax increases.
Still, it doesn't seem to be on the radar of voters. Stan Geiger, who gives the TCC administration the most persistent scrutiny on the World Wide Web at stan-geiger.com, had yet to cover the issue, just a week and a half before the vote.
The current tax rate for TCC is 7.21 mills. That's a permanent tax level. The proposed tax hike would add another 1.7 mills forever. The proposed bond issue would increase the rate by about another 3.1 mills for the next seven years.
The proposed TCC bond issue would pay for a brand new learning center in Owasso along with new buildings and remodeling at TCC's four existing campuses.
The permanent tax increase would allow TCC to expand its budget for operations and maintenance.
TCC is one of only three community colleges supported by local property taxes. The other two, Rose State College in Midwest City and Oklahoma City Community College, are both in Oklahoma County.
TCC taxpayers nearly match the state's contribution to TCC's annual budget -- $31 million in local property taxes to $37 million in state appropriations.
Oklahoma County patrons, as usual, get off easy: The ratio of local support to state appropriation is only 12% for OCCC and 7% for Rose State. Tulsa always seems to pay for what Oklahoma City gets cheap or for free.
It's always a struggle to get state funds for Tulsa needs. One has to wonder whether, if the TCC board were locally elected instead of appointed, they would fight harder to get our fair share of funds from the State Capitol.
As voters consider the new TCC taxes, the most important question is, "How badly do we want our streets fixed?"
I know: TCC can't do anything to fix our streets. But we need to consider how we prioritize the level of taxation our citizens are willing to tolerate, and a property tax increase is one of the options being considered for the City of Tulsa's $1.6 billion street maintenance deficit.
I expect the TCC tax backers to respond angrily to that assertion, just as the backers of the new county river tax protested when opponents made the argument about priorities.
They will tell us that Tulsa's street problem shouldn't be laid at TCC's doorstep, that we should only think about whether TCC deserves more money, not whether there might be a greater need elsewhere.
Someone is bound to say, "We don't need to choose between more money for streets and more money for TCC. We can raise taxes for both of them!"
Aye, But Here's the Rub
Some local governments in this country oversee schools, community colleges, and libraries along with police and fire departments, streets, and public utilities.
In those places, a mayor or county executive board has the responsibility to weigh the budget needs from all those departments, and to parcel out available revenues. During a crime wave, they may decide to hold the community college budget at the same level while boosting funds for police. During a downturn, every department would be asked to tighten its belt.
But in Oklahoma it's different. We have what is known as a "color of money" problem. Library money can only be spent on libraries. Community college money can only be spent on the community college.
Every square inch of Tulsa County is under the jurisdiction of six independent ad valorem taxing authorities: Tulsa County, Tulsa Technology Center, Tulsa Community College, the Tulsa City-County Library, the Tulsa City-County Health Department, and the local school district. Incorporated areas are under a seventh levy to pay for municipal general obligation bond issues and any court judgments against the city.
Each of these bodies is independently governed and has its own sources of revenues. Cities are mainly dependent on sales taxes, schools get a mixture of state funds and local property taxes, and the other bodies are mainly funded by property tax.
There are some advantages to each entity having its own pot of money. Each agency is insulated from the budgetary decisions of the others. During an economic downturn, the city can't cut the library budget to fund pools or police. When sales tax revenues fall flat, the ad valorem-funded community college can continue to expand services, while the city cuts back on mowing grass in the parks.
The disadvantage is that without a central budget authority, it's almost impossible to reprioritize the overall tax burden among these competing entities.
In effect, the voters of Tulsa County have to act as the budget board, to balance the competing claims for our property taxes. There's a limit to how high a tax rate we'll tolerate. When any of the taxing authorities asks for money, it's up to us to decide whether that's the best use of that share of our overall tax tolerance.
Our job is complicated by the fact that the requests for more money don't come in all at once. We will vote on the TCC tax hike without knowing what how much additional millage and sales tax the City of Tulsa will request for streets. We do know that the $1.6 billion need exists, and we will have to find the money for it somehow.
Tulsa County voters have shown a willingness to make these priority judgments in the past. We turned down a library bond issue in December 2004. In February 2002, Tulsa County rejected a ?-mill increase for the Health Department.
In both cases, voters were saying, we appreciate the good job you do, but you have enough money to accomplish what we ask of you. We're going to hold back the property tax revenue you requested for more urgent needs.
The fact that TCC is now able to offer free rides to academically-qualified Tulsa County students, without any means-testing, suggests that they have more than enough money to get the job done.
There's one more good reason to say no to TCC next Tuesday. TCC has devastated its section of downtown Tulsa, bulldozing block after block for surface parking.
While TCC deserves credit for preserving the old Tulsa Public Schools Manual Arts Building, and the student activities center at 10th and Cincinnati is a nice addition to the streetscape, the school is an urban design disaster. Isolated by a sea of asphalt, it may as well be in suburbia for its lack of synergy with the rest of downtown.
You might think that a downtown college campus would generate some nearby economic activity, but there isn't much nearby land that TCC hasn't paved over. There really isn't any place you could put a bookstore, coffeehouse, or sundries shop so that it would be within eyeshot and easy walking distance of the campus.
While Oklahoma City turned its old downtown car dealerships into an up-and-coming district called Automobile Alley, TCC and the south downtown churches scraped away the kind of old buildings that can be transformed into hip new businesses.
We can't spank the churches for being bad neighbors, but we can discipline TCC. Since the TCC board isn't locally elected, rejecting this tax increase is the only opportunity for Tulsans to express their displeasure with TCC's annihilation of its part of downtown.
On Tuesday, Tulsa County voters will act as what we might call the Supreme Local Government Budget Board, sitting in judgment over TCC's request for more funds. I intend to do my duty and prioritize my city's ailing infrastructure over more funds for a college already flush with public money.
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