POSTED ON MARCH 30, 2011:
City Government Briefs
River Waiver Update. City officials have received a release from a federal agency that will allow them to seek redevelopment proposals for a 100-acre site on the west bank of the Arkansas River.
Terry Simonson, Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s chief of staff, said the U.S. Economic Development Administration recently agreed to issue the waiver for a section of the site. The property had been purchased with federal funds approximately a quarter century ago and included a provision that the land could not be used for commercial purposes for 30 years.
City officials had not assumed the issuance of the wavier was a sure thing, Simonson said.
"The restrictions are there for a purpose," he said. "We also knew they knew it takes the city quite a while to achieve that purpose."
Now it's time for the land to serve a new function, he said.
Tulsa officials sought the waiver in January after they announced they hoped to issue a request for proposals for development of the 100-acre site, a patchwork of properties controlled by the city, the Tulsa River Parks Authority and private individuals. The site includes part of the River West Festival Park, a privately owned concrete plant and a city owned maintenance yard.
"Now we're free to use it for development purposes or any other ways we want to pursue," Simonson said, adding that work on the RFP is almost complete. "Our target time is, we're shooting for the first week of April."
Simonson said the RFP has been reviewed by River Parks personnel and those from the development community to assure that it is worded in such a way to attract a broad variety of proposals.
The mayor's chief of staff said he had no idea what kind of proposals to expect, but he believes there will be several submitted.
"We've had a great deal of interest from the folks at Branson's Landing," he said. "And there will be others who respond because the development of riverfront and lakefront property across the country seems to have caught fire with people."
Simonson noted that 75 percent of respondents in a recent city survey of Tulsans indicated that riverfront development was a priority for them.
"We intended to act on those opinions as quickly as time would allow," he said. "And here we are, less than 30 days after the release of a survey showing strong support for that, we're prepared to launch an RFP doing that."
Zeroing in on zoning. Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. is considering a list of names for membership on a panel that will be charged with reviewing responses to a request for proposals from firms interested in helping revise the city's zoning code.
The original deadline for responses to the city's RFP for the zoning code revision was March 23, but that deadline later was pushed back to March 30.
Terry Simonson, the mayor's chief of staff, said Bartlett is working from a list of eight or nine people from various sectors associated with the zoning field who are being considered for membership on the panel.
"Our hope is that he'll have his panel selected, and those individuals will agree to serve," he said. "And by the middle of April, the panel will begin to review the proposals and interview those who have responded. So it's moving along just perfect."
The zoning code revision was one of the primary recommendations included in the city's recent update to its comprehensive plan. Another recommendation from the plan -- that the city hiring a planning director -- also is being acted on, though its progress has not been as swift, Simonson said.
The mayor has convened a planning director advisory committee that already has met once and is scheduled to meet again this week, Simonson said. That group will set the parameters for the search and explore what kind of planning department the city wants.
Once that has been done, Simonson said, he expects the advisory committee to begin scheduling internal candidates. Three people already employed by the city have applied for the job, he said, though city officials are conducting a national search.
"I think originally we were planning on it being filled by this summer," he said of the position. "I think that's still a realistic timetable at this point."
Measure Movement. Even as Senate Bill 750 -- a measure that would allow municipalities to collect their own sales tax receipts from businesses, rather than relying on the state Tax Commission to do it for them -- continues to make its way through the state Legislature, efforts are continuing to bring those on both sides of the issue together.
Terry Simonson, Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s chief of staff, said he was encouraged by the recent passage of SB 750 by Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward, by the state Senate. The Bartlett administration has led the fight against a law that was adopted at the end of the 2010 session that required state municipalities to contract through the Tax Commission for sales tax collections, with city officials maintaining a private contractor can perform the job for the city better and more cheaply. Tulsa filed a legal challenge to that measure last year in addition to pursuing this year's legislative remedy.
Simonson said he is trying to bring all the key players in the issue together for a discussion of a possible legislative compromise that would avoid an all-out battle as the measure heads to the state House of Representatives for action.
"We want to sit down and do it the way it ought to be done, not exclusively through the legislative process," he said.
Simonson said he has asked former Tulsa City Auditor Preston Doerflinger -- now the director of the Office of State Finance -- to mediate the issue between supporters of the bill and the Tax Commission, and he has agreed to do that. Simonson said he hopes those talks can take place sometime in the next two weeks.
"We know the Tax Commission isn't supportive of our efforts," he said. "But before we go through a protracted battle in the Legislature -- with them lobbying legislators their way and us lobbying legislators our way -- let's at least see if we can have a meeting of the minds on this issue and see if we can get it through the House as smoothly as we did the Senate."
Simonson said the administration has not had any discussions with Mayor Mary Fallin about the bill, but he said the state's new chief executive did visit Barlett's office after she was elected last fall and received a full briefing on the issue.
"She was made aware of the seriousness of the issue for Tulsa and the seriousness of the issue for the state, maybe for the first time," Simonson said, adding that the failure of businesses to pay the taxes they owe affects not only the city's coffers, but the state's, as well. "So she does have it on her radar."
Simonson believes Doerflinger's recent addition to the governor's cabinet could be the key element in the brokering of a deal between those on the two sides of the issue. The former city auditor is well versed in how important the issue is from Tulsa's perspective, he said, though he noted Doerflinger now will be responsible for examining it from the perspective of the Tax Commission, as well.
"I am optimistic that there is common ground that we can find to perhaps create a hybrid system," he said, hinting that a joint public-private solution may be in the works.
"At the end of the day, I think we're going to be better off than we were if we hadn't tried this," Simonson said.
The other fossil fuel. The city's recent opening of a compressed natural gas fueling station at its maintenance yard at 420 W. 23rd St. underscores its commitment to using CNG, even if demand for the fuel may not be as high as city officials would hope, according to a member of Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s management team.
"There will be a demand," said Chris Benge, the mayor's director of intergovernmental and enterprise development who championed a number of pro-CNG initiatives when he served as the speaker of the state House of Representatives before joining Bartlett's staff earlier this year. "It's kind of like the chicken and the egg. The government plays a role in helping create demand."
While the new fueling station, dedicated on March 8, will mainly be used to fuel the city's growing fleet of CNG-powered vehicles, Benge noted it is open to members of the public who drive CNG-powered vehicles. One of the drawbacks to driving such a vehicle now, he noted, is the limited number of fueling stations available.
By increasing their number, he said, the city can make it more convenient to drive a vehicle that operates on the cleaner-burning fuel and increase the nations' energy independence.
The recent spike in gasoline prices is likely to contribute to that effort, as well, he said.
"It's only going to grow as gasoline prices continue to grow," he said. "We may be seeing the last of the days of cheap gasoline."
The volatility of gasoline prices can be affected by a number of factors that have made themselves apparent in recent weeks, he said, including natural disasters and political unrest in the world's oil-producing regions.
"We cannot continue to be subject to the politics of the Middle East as it relates to our energy resources," Benge said.
The city's fleet of CNG-powered vehicles is small -- only 17 out of approximately 2,600 -- but Benge said that number will increase in the years to come as gasoline prices continue to rise and incentives are put in place to make it more cost efficient.
The existence of federal tax credits for such conversions and a proposed streamlining of the Environmental Protection Agency certification process for CNG-powered engines should help lower costs, he said.
"Also, once you build that volume, mass production should bring down costs," he said.
Partly as a result of his efforts in the Legislature, the availability of CNG in Tulsa and throughout Oklahoma has been ramped up, Benge said.
"That has grown pretty dramatically in the last couple of years," he said. "I guess we're second only to Utah in CNG availability."
Benge noted the state officially has adopted a goal of having at least one CNG fueling station located along an interstate highway every 50 miles by the year 2025.
"There's not anything magical about that goal other than to say this is a goal we want to get down," he said.
But the fuel won't be used on a widespread basis as long as Americans always resort to buying cheap Middle East oil as their default position, he said.
"But if you look at the long term, I think you can lower those barriers," he said. "When you look at the external costs of clean air, (CNG) is cleaner burning. And when you look at the costs not directly in a gallon of gasoline -- the costs needed to stabilize the world for oil -- CNG becomes much more of an option."
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