POSTED ON JUNE 1, 2011:
Who Will Budge It First?
Another year, another budget battle. Can councilors and the mayor avoid 2010's volley of vetoes and overrides?
It's been almost a year since the level of discord between Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. and the City Council reached its zenith, but the prospects for a less-contentious atmosphere around the approval of a new city budget appear limited, if the concerns expressed last week by several city councilors are any indication.
The mayor submitted his proposed budget to the council in April, labeling it a "citizens budget" that was based largely on the results of a survey of Tulsa residents that was conducted several months ago. That proposal includes increased funding for a number of areas that were identified as priorities in that survey, including beautification efforts, economic development initiatives, quality-of-life enhancements and street improvements.
But a number of councilors dismissed the notion that the administration's proposed budget is a departure from the way the municipal budget has been put together in the past.
"Being on the council, we have the most contact with the citizens," said District 5 Councilor Chris Trail. "The survey provided some good information, but some of the things in the (proposed) budget are the same as last year, and we fought for those. I don't think anybody was surprised by what the survey said. I think it's always been a people's budget."
District 7 Councilor John Eagleton said he rejected the idea that the Bartlett administration had tapped into something new by constructing a budget around the survey results.
"This is very similar to every other budget I've been involved with," he said.
Trail said the Bartlett budget largely ignores PLANiTULSA, the city's comprehensive plan update that thousands of Tulsans helped craft.
"We're not funding it, and that's what citizens want," he said.
District 3 Councilor Roscoe Turner has misgivings about the burden that will fall on citizens in some instances.
"I think the people are still concerned about some of the proposed increases in fees to pay for some of these things," he said. "And I'm anti-tax, anyway."
Turner also expressed concerns about the mayor's reorganization of Public Works and other city departments.
"As far as the KPMG study, we still haven't accepted that, but the administration is going through with it as if everything's been OKed," he said.
District 2's Rick Westcott and District 4's Maria Barnes agreed the Public Works reorganization in particular could be a source of disagreement.
"First he wants it divided up, and then it's not divided, so that's confusing," Barnes said.
But there are those who believe the administration and mayor are not that far apart on their budget negotiations. District 1's Jack Henderson said he believed Bartlett came closer to presenting the council with an acceptable budget than he did last year, while Westcott indicated he had no major objections to what the administration submitted.
District 9's G.T. Bynum believes the use of the citizens survey to determine priorities was a useful exercise.
"The whole point of that survey was, it was supposed to be a customer satisfaction survey," he said.
If the survey revealed citizens want more resources devoted to specific areas, he has no problem with doing that, Bynum said.
"That said, people always criticized Bill Clinton for governing by polling, and I certainly don't think we ought to be doing that," he said. "But I think the survey determined there needed to be an emphasis on code enforcement, and that's probably a good idea. Does that mean the mayor's office has the insight of what everybody in town wants and the best way to spend every dime? No, but generally, I found the budget to be pretty good."
Nevertheless, Bynum did have some concerns, including a lack of funding for the city's community intervention center. Established last year, the center deals with youthful offenders, providing counseling and other services, and Bynum described it as a "force multiplier" for police.
"If they pick up an underage offender, and that kid doesn't have a home to go to, those officers can spend hours just going around trying to find a place for them to go," Bynum said, adding that the community intervention center eliminated that problem.
But the center costs $400,000 a year to operate, he said, and it is funded only at a level of $160,000 in the mayor's proposed budget.
"We've got to make up the balance of that and keep it open," he said.
Bynum also wants to see more money devoted to the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Authority, which the city operates jointly with Tulsa County. He said the agency used to be funded equally by the two entities, but the city has not maintained its obligation in recent years because of its financial problems.
That led to a reduction in force at the agency, he said, including the elimination of a staff member charged with compiling a plan to update the city's emergency siren network, Bynum said. That network is several decades old and badly needs an upgrade, he said.
Now that the city is back in a position to fully fund its share of TAEMA operations, it needs to do so, he said.
"If the last couple of weeks haven't shown us how important that is, I don't know what else needs to happen," he said.
Henderson, Westcott and District 4's Maria Barnes all named increased funding for mass transit as an area that needs greater funding.
"Trying to get some funding back in there is a real concern for me," Henderson said. "A lot of people in my district ride the bus. It's the only transportation some of them have. So we've got to figure out a way to try to give (Tulsa Transit director) Bill Cartwright what he asked for."
Barnes said she constantly hears from constituents who tell her they would take mass transit if it were more convenient.
"I really hope we can make a change to help mass transit in this budget," she said.
Westcott noted his district has no bus service at all on Sundays, which presents a real hardship for District 2 citizens who work non-traditional schedules. Mass transit in Tulsa has been ignored for too long, he believes.
"Especially in my district, a lot of people are completely dependent on the bus system," he said. "A lot of them can't afford cars."
Still, even with a recent increase in sales tax revenue, not every priority of every council member and the mayor will be met. Eagleton takes a cautious approach to spending in general and is particularly concerned about the size of the operations budget the mayor submitted, explaining that it expands spending at three times the rate of core inflation. For that reason alone, he said, he could not support Bartlett's budget.
"We're making the same mistakes we made in 2005 and 2006," he said, adding that the city was emerging from an economic slowdown in those days, as well. As soon as sales tax revenues began to rise, he said, city officials began spending money unwisely, he said, twice approving budgets that included raises for city employees -- a factor that contributed to the deep cuts that city officials were forced to implement during the most recent recession.
"If the city of Tulsa, in fat times, when there's more revenue coming in, simply budgeted to core inflation and set aside its excess revenues, when the slowdown comes, we don't have to hurt people," he said. "To me, it's as plain as day, but I can't find a way to make myself understood to my fellow councilors. It's frustrating."
Eagleton is discouraged by one effect of that cycle in particular, he said.
"We lost a bunch of really good cops," he said of the most recent economic downturn. "The city of Tulsa had spent literally millions of dollars training these police officers, and we had to let them go. And a lot of them may never come back."
Trying to sell his council colleagues on the wisdom of toeing a conservative financial line is difficult, he said.
"If they do that, then politicians don't get to take a victory lap like they did in 2006 and 2007 for giving everybody raises," he said. "But when the wheels come off the deal, as they inevitably will, nobody's there to stand up and say, 'Hey, I was wrong, and I apologize.' "
Westcott took exception to a portion of the mayor's budget that calls for spending $200,000 on outside legal help to help represent the city with workers compensation hearings.
"When we quizzed the city's legal staff about that three or four weeks ago, they didn't have the justification for that," he said.
Trail said he was confused by the administration's stance in regard to some of the issues covered in the KPMG efficiency study of city services. The District 5 councilor said it was his understanding that the audit recommended reductions in the city's Communications Department, while the mayor's proposed budget calls for increases in that department.
"If KPMG recommends us doing something about that, and it looks like we're going to eventually, I don't want to approve a budget and hire people we're going to have to cut later," he said. "That's what concerns me. It seems to fly in the face of what KPMG recommends."
Trail pointed out that several months ago, the Bartlett administration was warning the council of an $18.5 million budget shortfall for Fiscal Year 2012.
"They said the sky was falling," he said. "Now they're saying, 'Increase (the budget).' "
Henderson said he and his council colleagues face a difficult decision in regard to proposed increases to the city's storm water and sewer fees that would range from $8 to $11 a month. That kind of hike would present a real hardship to many of his constituents, he said, though he noted the need for increased funding that area is obvious.
"At some point, you have to say, for the good of the city, you have to do it," he said.
Trail did sound one note of optimism in regard to the council's dealings with the administration, noting he appreciated the collaborative tone newly appointed city manager Jim Twombly has taken with the council.
"Working with him has been a real pleasure," Trail said.
Bynum hopes both the council and the mayor will take a more cooperative approach in their budget negotiations than they did a year ago. He would prefer to see councilors bring their priorities to the attention of the administration and getting the mayor's thoughts on those changes "rather than dropping a bomb on them like last year when there was no opportunity for collaboration."
During the budget approval process in 2010, the two sides simply resorted to a series of vetoes and veto overrides, Bynum noted. He hopes to avoid that scenario this time.
"That's the mechanism we used for collaboration, and I don't think that's a very constructive approach."
Turner was not as optimistic.
"It' hasn't changed," he said of the acrimonious relationship between the mayor and council. "It's a tit-for-tat situation, and that's actually why the council is in the process of seeing if we can't change the city charter to a council-manager form of government."
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A39568