POSTED ON FEBRUARY 23, 2011:
Making Census Sense
Census data shows a slight population decline, but city officials are mixed on the meaning
John Eagleton, Tulsa's District 7 representative to the City Council, would hardly classify the release of recent U.S. Census data showing the city had lost a little more than 1,000 residents over the last 10 years as good news.
"But it could have been much worse," he said, comparing the situation to a patient who is diagnosed with a cold instead of cancer.
That's because Tulsa actually gained more than 10,000 residents over the last five years, almost enough to offset the population losses it suffered between 2000 and 2005. As it is, the city's number of residents declined 0.3 percent -- or 1,143 people -- in the first decade of the 21st century.
Those numbers are of major interest to Tulsa officials because they indirectly reflect the stability of the city's tax base. Tulsa relies to a very large degree on sales tax receipts for its general fund, and a higher number of residents usually results in more money being generated from sales tax.
Conversely, a population decline often results in less tax money to fund city services.
That's the situation Tulsa officials have found themselves in for the past two years as the recession took hold, exacerbating the effects of the population decline. Particularly disconcerting was the fact that all of Tulsa's suburbs experienced population increases, meaning many of them are benefiting at Tulsa's expense.
Members of the City Council had different reactions to the situation.
"It's been going on for years, and there are numerous factors and reasons involved -- everything from a perceived increase in crime to a desire to send their kids to different schools to maybe just a desire to get out of midtown and into a half-acre lot in the suburbs," said District 2 Councilor Rick Westcott. "I don't think we're going to be able to change that, but we do need to address a decline in our revenue."
District 5 Councilor Chris Trail drew a family analogy to describe the position Tulsa's suburbs are in these days.
"They're like children," he said. "We helped raise them and set them up, and now they're taking a lot of our residents away."
Bill Christiansen of District 8 said the issue is a big concern to him.
"One aspect that weighs on my mind is we need to at least sustain our numbers and grow them to produce revenue to the city," he said. "This is a basic issue. I would hate to see us crumble from within."
Trail said he was very concerned when he saw the census figures, not just because of their impact on the city's tax base.
"We could lose some of our representation in state government," he said.
Eagleton was somewhat less alarmed than his associates on the council, indicating the population decline is, in some respects, part of the life cycle of any city of Tulsa's age.
"It would be nice to reverse that trend, but the facts are the facts," he said. "People are moving to the suburbs."
District 9 Councilor G.T. Bynum said that while last week's news was disappointing, it hardly was a surprise, given the fact that it is a dynamic that larger cities across the nation have been experiencing for decades.
"I look at it as a challenge," he said. "If you look at the last decade, if you want to consider growth in the region, clearly the suburbs are doing a better job of attracting growth than the city."
Eagleton believes there are many reasons behind the situation, explaining that the coming of age of Tulsa's suburbs and the declining financial wherewithal of many families in the city also are contributing to the erosion of the city's tax base.
"All of which is expected in a city such as Tulsa," he said.
Trail, on the other hand, believes there are other factors at play.
"I've had a lot of people tell me they left because of crime and violence here," he said. "If we can improve on that, people will return."
The first-term councilor believes Tulsa is still able to offer a number of advantages the suburbs can't.
"Tulsa is a great place," he said. "It has a lot of big town attractions but still feels like a little town."
Bynum believes Tulsa needs to continue to play to its strengths to reverse the loss of residents to its bedroom communities. He said the city started doing that five years ago, with good results.
"That's when the city got very serious about focusing on its key assets that can't be replicated by suburban areas, meaning downtown -- with its millions of dollars of infrastructure that isn't going to be duplicated by Owasso -- and the (Arkansas) river. Those are areas of opportunity that many of us see as the key to growth."
Christiansen and Westcott both view the timely implementation of elements of the city's new comprehensive plan as an important part of that equation, as well.
"Most of our land is occupied now, so the next phase in our evolution is infill," Christiansen said. "That has to be done properly."
Westcott said he didn't mean to imply the city needs to be reactionary by rushing through the elements of PLANiTULSA without carefully examining their potential impact, but he pointed out the new comprehensive plan is a good indicator of what citizens want.
"The people's input tells us what we need to do to make Tulsa good place to live," he said.
The decline in revenue makes it necessary for Tulsa to maximize the efficiency of its government, he said, along with exploring ways to avoid being so dependent on sales tax receipts.
"Maybe more important is working with our state Legislature to find alternative sources of revenue for Tulsa and other cities," he said. "That would have the most long-term benefit."
Eagleton believes the best way to combat the population decline -- and avoid the decline in tax revenue that results from it -- is to make sure the city is providing the core government services that residents expect, resisting tax increases and not imposing any more of a burden on citizens than is necessary.
The city of Detroit -- which has been ravaged by population declines and resulting budget cutbacks -- serves as a good example of what can happen when insufficient attention is paid to those elements, he said.
"The government stopped providing core services and costs spiraled out of control," he said. "That's when Detroit came crashing down."
Bynum said Tulsa has done a good job of addressing concerns about roads through the ongoing "Fix Our Streets" program, but plenty of work remains in addressing public safety worries.
One of the biggest concerns of citizens -- the idea that city schools are inferior to many suburban districts -- is at the top of his list, too, he said.
"The frustration for me is that so much of our future growth is reliant on the Tulsa Public Schools system," he said. "And that's totally out of the city's hands. We are powerless, which is incredibly frustrating. That is another thing that deserves thought for all of us."
Trail acknowledged that, as a councilor, he has no direct impact on Tulsa Public Schools. But he said he can still do his part as a citizen.
"I can support the schools and be an active member of the PTA," he said, noting that a strong case can be made for a direct link between better schools and a reduction in crime.
Bynum said last week's news is a bit of a wake-up call for anyone who loves Tulsa and wants to see it thrive.
"It is a reminder and challenge to us," he said. "If we just keep doing what we've always done, Tulsa will wind up like Detroit and Cleveland and other places. The way we keep from that is by facing up to it. That requires innovation and smart decisions."
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