POSTED ON MARCH 27, 2013:
Wishes Aren't Fishes
Are better streets the only way to woo voters?
If a push for better streets is a no-brainer, don't tell Mayor Dewey Bartlett that's all Tulsans want.
Bartlett cited a 2011 survey of citizens to explain why he's pushing for a sliver of tax dollars to fund more police academies.
"We had that citizen survey. They said very clearly that they want more cops on the ground, period. They didn't want them in 2015, they wanted them in 2011," Bartlett said.
He spoke a week after Councilor G.T. Bynum proposed focusing solely on streets in November tax extension ballot package.
An estimated $800 million in public funds is at stake, with city leaders struggling to craft a proposal that appeals to voters.
"The streets package is going to pass if it's on the ballot, in my personal opinion, because the citizens of Tulsa understand those needs, they're clear, there's no debate about that. But everything else is going to require a lot more work and scrutiny," Bynum told fellow councilors at a March 14 meeting.
His proposal is to put a roughly $414 million question on the ballot this year, utilizing two revenue sources: general obligation bonds and a five-year extension of a 0.167 cent sales tax set to expire in 2014.
Bartlett has proposed setting aside the 0.167 cent sales tax, which would generate an estimated $12 million yearly, to fund police and fire needs along with regular street maintenance. In an interview, Bynum said he believed the yearly city budget dollars cold fund more police academies without the tax.
Next year, the "third-penny" sales tax is also set to expire.
If the "third-penny" is combined with the other two revenue sources, they would result in roughly $800 in revenue over five years. But Bynum proposed bringing the third-penny renewal to voters next year as a way to fund more street repair and various other infrastructure needs. "In my mind, not having it intermingled with the mayor's race gives it a much better chance of success," he said.
Councilors have been reviewing funding requests from city departments, considering how they might put a portion of the $800 million before voters to fund needs for safety or parks or other areas.
At the March 14 meeting, five councilors expressed support for Bynum's proposal.
"All of this other stuff jumbled together, it's confusing people," said Councilor Jack Henderson.
Construction on 11th, near Harvard
Councilor Karen Gilbert said concern about streets is "the number one thing that I hear from the public," while Councilor Jeannie Cue called streets "a top priority" for people in her district.
Councilor Blake Ewing said the "third-penny" sales tax has typically funded a wide variety of infrastructure needs, while voters clearly understood the 2008 Fix Our Streets ballot proposal.
"I would say my biggest reason for supporting this idea probably comes from a communications and marketing strategy," Ewing said.
Councilor Arianna Moore said, "From the feedback I've gotten, this is what they think they need and this is what they want."
But support wasn't unanimous.
Councilor David Patrick expressed concern that such a small package for streets would disappoint citizens. Having one package would be "the most efficient way to do it," Patrick said, adding that if the "third-penny" election next year is unsuccessful, a lapse of the tax would lead to major consequences for city finances.
Councilor Phil Lakin suggested splitting the package into two parts but putting them on the same ballot, while Councilor Skip Steele said he remains open to all options.
A poll commissioned in the fall by The Tulsa World showed more than 70 percent supporting renewal of the 2008 Fix Our Streets package.
A World article in November described Bynum as not concerned that a package with more than street needs might be unpopular.
In an interview, Bynum described his change in thinking.
"Having our public town hall meetings and hearing the reaction of citizens to any discussion around our capital needs, I underestimated the level of suspicion that there would be, even around very basic governmental needs," Bynum said.
He said he "also underestimated the impact that a mayoral election would have on muddying the waters around the contents of any capital improvements program."
Bynum said he hasn't heard any of the announced candidates, badmouth the effort to craft a capital needs proposal, but said he's heard "supporters" expressing "their suspicions" about the effort. Bartlett is running for re-election against former mayor Kathy Taylor and former councilman Bill Christiansen.
Bartlett disagreed with Bynum's idea that a non-streets package would become highly politicized in the mayoral race.
"I really don't see that happening. I think that basic needs like streets and public safety, that's not politicizing. That's simply meeting what the public wants," Bartlett said.
He said he had no problem with a separate streets package, but said he did not favor delaying a part of the package until next year.
"For one thing, we'd have to have two elections, which are expensive. We'd have to have two campaigns to garner support from the voters, and that's very expensive," Bartlett said.
Keeping it in one package would also lead to street funding at least on the order of the $451.6 million package voters approved in 2008, Bartlett said.
"If we do it all this year, it would provide at least a similar amount of money, if not more, to take care of our streets problem," he said.
He also emphasized his proposal not only would fund police academies, but also set aside money for regular street maintenance, which ultimately would be more cost effective than repair and rehabilitation projects.
Bartlett said while he would like the 0.167 sales tax be made permanent to continue ensure added police officer positions remain funded, it's not a necessity.
"I'm not stuck on making it permanent, but I think it's in the best interest to make it permanent. But I'd be happy either way," he said.
He said that Bynum's proposal is "just an idea to talk about," as is his proposal -- and that the public should be heard.
"If they feel that public safety and good consistent maintenance of our street system is important, now's a good time to voice that need," Bartlett said.
A City Hall in Your Neighborhood meeting about city needs will be held April 2 at 6pm at Whiteside Community Center, 4009 S. Pittsburg Ave.
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