POSTED ON NOVEMBER 10, 2010:
Bumbershot In the Dark
Voters overwhelmingly approve establishment of "rainy day" fund
All of a sudden, “city government” is more than an oxymoron. “It bears mentioning that this proposal was put together jointly by the mayor’s administration and every member of the City Council,” said chief architect, G.T Bynum.
In the days after the passage of a measure he helped champion that would create a so-called "rainy day" fund for the city of Tulsa, District 9 City Councilor G.T. Bynum was still basking in the glow of that victory.
But at the same time, he fully realized the impact of the change won't be apparent for quite some time.
"It's going to be a case of delayed gratification, I think," he said on Nov. 4, two days after Tulsa voters overwhelmingly approved a change to the city charter to establish the fund. "This is something where the citizens of Tulsa won't be able to appreciate what they did for years, until we have another decline and go through what we've been through for the last two years."
Officially dubbed the Economic Stabilization Reserve Fund, the fund essentially will create a savings account for the city, allowing it to endure downturns in the economy more easily and allow it to reduce or eliminate the layoffs, furloughs and other cutbacks that marked the city's budget process last year.
Under the terms of the measure, once the city's general fund has reached a balance of $250 million -- a level that Finance Department officials anticipate is two to three years away, Bynum said -- and the general fund revenue for a budget year exceeds the amount from the previous year by more than 4 percent, 50 percent of that excess revenue will be diverted to the fund. The rest would go to the general fund or be used for capital expenditures.
The money in the Economic Stabilization Reserve Fund could be accessed only during lean times when general fund revenue declines from that of the previous budget year.
"I was very excited that it passed and that it passed by such a large margin," Bynum said, referring to the fact the measure drew the support of 67 percent of voters. "On a night when fiscal responsibility seemed to be the battle cry across the country, it was interesting to see Tulsa take the lead on fiscal responsibility by being the first city in Oklahoma to create a rainy day fund and to become the first to restrict the growth of government."
Bynum believes the creation of the fund is significant.
"It will make a world of difference," he said.
And yet he knows it likely will take a considerable amount of time for the fund to grow into even a modest amount of cash. Tulsa appears to be at least one good economic boom away from making that happen.
"Hopefully, we will have a period of sustained economic growth that will allow it to accumulate," he said. "The big challenge with this fund is to give enough time to accumulate enough money to provide us with the best possible level of protection."
Bynum said the measure was put together in such a way that it would have allowed the city to escape the cutbacks necessitated by the economic downturn of fiscal years 2002 through 2004, a mild setback compared to the current recession. But he pointed out city officials couldn't have modeled it on the current economic downturn because it's not over yet.
"We don't know when the crunch we've been in will end," he said. "So we didn't design it for that."
But he emphasized that the measure was based on an actual recent scenario.
"It wasn't just kind of designed out there in theory," he said. "We used real examples from Tulsa's history."
While Bynum was the public face of the effort to secure passage of the measure -- "the squirrel on water skis trying to sell it," as he put it -- he said others deserve credit, as well.
"It bears mentioning that this proposal was put together jointly by the mayor's administration and every member of the City Council," he said.
But he also couldn't help but count it as a personal victory.
"Among the things I've been proud to say I was associated with in my time on the council, I'd put this up there with the Fix Our Streets package," he said. "That was another bipartisan effort led by a number of people, and that is what helped both of these become very successful proposals."
Bynum characterized the creation of the new fund as the most fundamental change in the way Tulsa funds its city government since then-Mayor Jim Inhofe led the creation of the Third Penny sales tax in the 1980s.
"For people who complain that there's too much bickering, that no one can get anything done and that they don't like to look down the turnpike at everything they've done in Oklahoma City," the measure is a strong rebuttal, he said.
"In a period of time when people are calling for governments to show more discipline, we've put forth a proposal that makes Tulsa a model for the rest of the state," Bynum said.
He also believes it serves as a strong counter to those who maintain Tulsa city government is broken and needs to be restructured.
"I think for decades, people have expected economic discipline from their city," he said. "But they've never had a way to mandate it, other than through elections. This puts in a structure that mandates fiscal discipline."
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