POSTED ON MAY 18, 2011:
Clean and Tidy, at Least
Mayor says survey-centric budget means more mowing and pools, less graffiti and fewer potholes
The lofty rhetoric often delivered during ribbon cuttings, ground breakings or other public events may provide the average mayor of Tulsa with the opportunity wax poetic about the shining future of his or her city.
But if you're seriously interested in taking a look at a mayor's visions and goals, you need look no further than the budget he or she submits to the City Council each year, says Terry Simonson, Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s chief of staff.
"If you want to know what a mayor thinks, what his priorities are, what direction he wants to move the city, there's probably no better single source than to look at than his budget and spending priorities for the next fiscal year," Simonson said.
With that in mind, Simonson said, the Bartlett administration delivered to councilors last month what it is calling the first "citizens budget" -- one built on a citywide citizens survey conducted several months ago.
In that budget, the mayor said, he makes his vision for Tulsa clear.
"We are one Tulsa," he said. "That we must be a seamless city that is not seen as divided by districts or conditions. That the common features of safety, cleanliness, capital improvements and business growth should be seen in all parts of Tulsa, and no place should feel left behind or left out of our forward progress."
Simonson said the administration took the feedback from that survey and made it a centerpiece of the budget it submitted to the council "so that people would know we didn't just listen to the survey but came up with a vision, a plan that reflects their community priorities and values. It's the first time the budget's been put together quite like that."
It's also a budget that contains at least 10 of the priority items of the City Council from the annual compendium of needs that body compiled in January, Simonson said.
"So, as the council reviews it, I believe they will find at least 10 or more initiatives that they should be able to agree with," he said. "In my point of view, if you can agree with at least 80 percent of what we have submitted, I think that's a very good sign."
Simonson said he doesn't know if the council is on board with the mayor's proposed budget to that degree, but he expects to find out shortly. Councilors have been examining the budget since it was submitted to them during the third week of April, and they have until late June to approve a budget. The city's new fiscal year begins July 1.
"I think if they keep to the big picture and look at what they said were priorities and keep front and foremost what the citizens said were their priorities ... then I think it would be easy to adopt the budget and be able to tell the citizens we are continuing the move the city in the right direction," Simonson said.
In his presentation to the council in April, the mayor said the priorities identified by citizens came through loud and clear in the survey -- beautification efforts, economic development initiatives, quality-of-life enhancements, street improvements and smart but frugal spending policies.
"You will see that in this budget, each of these has received an increased level of funding compared to past years' budgets," he said. "This budget responds directly to the people of Tulsa."
In the quality-of-life category, Simonson said citizens expressed their priorities in three major areas -- better code enforcement, faster demolition of abandoned properties and drug houses, and increased nuisance abatement and graffiti removal. They also want to see more done with their parks and the general appearance of the city, he said.
Demolition and nuisance abatement would see an additional $500,000 in funding under Bartlett's proposed budget, which also includes funding to open five municipal pools in the summer of 2012 -- the first time those pools will have been opened with public funds in a decade, Simonson said. An additional four splash pads would be open, while the amount of money spent on other park facilities would be increased by $3 million. The number of mowing cycles for rights of way, parks and sports fields will be nearly doubled, and an additional $2.3 million will go for maintenance and protection of the Gilcrease Museum.
In terms of public safety, the administration proposed a police academy for 32 recruits at a cost of $611,000 and a fire academy for 16 recruits at a cost of $210,000, along with additional police and fire equipment.
In regard to streets, more than $70 million in capital improvements is due to be spent through the next cycle of the city's Fix Our Streets initiative approved a few years ago by voters. Simonson said that sum would be augmented by approximately $3 million for street maintenance and pothole repair under the proposed budget. Five or six snow plows and salt spreaders would be added to the city's storm-fighting fleet next winter, and the city also would increase its salt-storage capacity, he said.
"So we're going to be more prepared for winter storms next year, and streets will continue to be a very top priority -- not only replacing them but maintaining them," he said.
Those three areas -- quality of life, public safety and streets -- tie into economic development, according to Simonson.
"We know that to sell a city to a company, you've got to build and maintain a quality city," he said. "That's what attracts companies and brings their employees here is that quality of life. So there's a great emphasis on that in this budget."
Simonson acknowledged that accommodating those increases is a difficult prospect, given the fact that the city has no control over the escalating costs it faces in three areas -- fuel, utilities and health insurance prices. But it's not impossible, he said.
"We will continue to run the city with at least 200 to 250 fewer employees, and we will maintain a 3 percent vacancy rate for as long as we possibly can," he said. "Shrinking the workforce and holding positions vacant is how we're going to address costs we can't control."
The budget includes other items of note, including a $9 million contribution to the city employee pension system to help cover its unfunded liability and more than $11 million for flood control projects. Additionally, for the first time in two years, Simonson said, city employees also will receive a small pay increase, though it likely will go into effect for only six months, rather than the entire fiscal year.
Bartlett's budget also includes funding -- approximately $40,000 -- to do another citizens survey in FY 2012. The Tulsa Community Foundation covered the cost of the first survey.
"The survey done now wasn't the first and last time it will be done, it's the first time of what will be done every year going forward," Simonson said. "Our view is, if it matters, you measure it. One way you measure it is you ask the customers, 'How are we doing?' So while this survey done this year will serve as our benchmark, we hope that by the priorities we've put in this budget, by listening to the citizens, next year when we do the survey, we will see positive numbers and an increased confidence that the citizens think the city is being well managed."
The budget also reflects a massive reorganization of the city's Planning Department. Under the administration's plan, the department would grow exponentially from its current size.
"What we're doing is we're taking the current Planning Department of nine or 10 folks and we're adding to it the individuals that do grant writing, we're adding to it development services, which is primarily permits and inspections, and we're adding to it the economic real estate department here," Simonson said.
According to the budget, that will result in a reconstituted Planning and Development Services Department of 121 employees.
"That's the size of staff that the new planning director will be responsible for managing and directing," he said. "I think once we get a planning director in that knows how to make the most of those resources, then we ought to be able to start tackling a number of these planning issues that heretofore either we haven't had the resources for or just didn't get the priority."
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