POSTED ON JULY 24, 2013:
The Latest Vision
Lots to talk about surrounding capital improvements
This fall, Tulsans will be voting on how our city will look and the direction it will take in the future. The election of Tulsa's next mayor and the capital improvements initiative will be one of those moments that will define Tulsa for many years. With the mayoral primary behind us, those who have been paying attention know the candidates in the mayor's race. Very little is left to say about them and their contrasting views on leading Tulsa for the next three years. Now, it's time to turn our attention to the details of the capital campaign.
The capital improvements initiative is just being rolled out to the public through community meetings. It is so new that it has yet to be named. Previous initiatives were dubbed Vision 2025, Four-to-Fix and Fix-Our-Streets. Certainly, once the marketing folks get their hands on this, there will be a brand name. The proposed $900 million plus price tag is significantly larger than the Vision 2025 package, so perhaps this is MegaVision, as opposed to Visionlite.
As the community education of the projects begins with the neighborhood meetings, it's wise for those promoting this initiative to remember the past and avoid repeating it. The most recent past, of course, is the defeat of Vision 2. While many Monday morning quarterbacks had opinions on why it failed, one constant belief was that there were too many projects costing a great deal of money. The mission was unclear, the justifications questionable, and the outcome uncertain. Proponents learned a couple of things from this defeat. First, they learned not to put too much faith in polls and, second, that rather than try to make sense of this labyrinth, many voters decided that voting "no" would be easier and would cost them nothing.
This latest initiative appears to have many different categories where funding is being proposed. The biggest portion is for streets. Streets are undoubtedly the easiest projects to sell to voters because they are everywhere, we all use them, and the work to be done is obvious. It's the projects in the other categories that will take greater explaining and justification in order to get the public approval.
If street projects are considered "must have" projects, then the rest might be considered "nice to have" projects.
Consider, for example, the proposal to spend $15 million dollars on a single stretch of Peoria Avenue for bus service. This isn't for street repair on Peoria, but just for bus service.
Over the years, there has been quite a debate on the viability and usability of the metro bus systems. Most of the transit system runs in a very small area within the city limits. Some have speculated that the buses were completely painted and decorated so we could not see that there are no riders inside. Proponents will need to provide the detailed breakdown not only on where the $15 million is going, but also real numbers for ridership, occupancy rates for buses, and return on investment.
There is also $10 million for improvements to the downtown library. Here, the councilors will need to make clear that the capital improvements are the responsibility of only the citizens of Tulsa and not the citizens of Tulsa County. It is, after all, the City County Library. They need to make it clear that the earmarked portion of our property taxes dedicated for the library is not sufficient to do what's needed.
Parks and park-related improvements are also high on the list. We have heard about the poor condition of our swimming pools for more than a decade. The is proposal is for "aquatic centers" to be built. There will need to be some definition of just what an aquatic center is and how it differs from a swimming pool.
There appears to be some money requested for Gilcrease Museum (with oversight provided by the University of Tulsa), the Performing Arts Center (with capital improvement oversight provided by the PAC Trust), BOK Center (under the management of SMG) and the Tulsa Zoo (now partially under the management of the Tulsa Zoo Friends).
In each of these areas, there have been representations made in the past that these private partners would assume some of the capital improvement responsibilities by privately raising the funds necessary for improvements. It was understood that the public would pay to run these places, and the private sector would pay to keep them in shape. It will be important that these public-private relationships and roles are explained and clarified to the public.
It will also be important that it is clearly expressed to the citizens that the councilors are not there just to sell their ideas, but to buy into the citizens' ideas, as well. Hopefully, then, the final proposals will be seen as being built from the bottom up not from the top down.
Since all of these projects are capital-intensive, this means there will be ongoing costs for maintenance and upkeep. How these costs will be funded needs to be explained. It would probably be wise to include in the proposal a provision to hold back a portion of the funds and dedicate a certain percentage of the total cost for maintenance, upkeep, and replacement costs. At least the public would know that the issue is being addressed, although there will still be a question as to how these facilities will be maintained once any funds that have been set aside run out.
Given that these projects are so varied, the ballot needs to be a "menu" ballot or "pick-and-choose" ballot. Voters should be given the option of voting for those projects they want to support and voting against any they don't support. Most voters will remember that the ballot for Vision 2025 was a menu with multiple options. If it is presented as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition with everything lumped into one single question, there is a much greater risk of rejection.
Every Tulsan knows that it takes funding to build and sustain a city. The historical success of the third penny sales tax being renewed time and time again attests to that. But Tulsans aren't fools. It takes a creditable, understandable message from trustworthy public officials in order for Tulsans to make this happen.
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