I couldn’t be at the City Council’s Vision 2025 renewal meeting Tuesday night, but my colleague Dylan Goforth was there. So he and I worked together today to give you a comprehensive recap of what went down.
In case you missed the meeting, too, the council cut the package by about $160 million, bringing the latest total of projects and programs to $861.6 million. That’s down from $1.02 billion.
To get there, the council and Mayor Dewey Bartlett reshuffled some projects, moving them from one category to another, and then chopped away.
The meeting started just after 5 p.m. and dragged on past 10 p.m., and was full of one-on-one arguments between councilors. Councilors Blake Ewing and Jack Henderson got into a brief argument over transportation funding, Ewing’s point being that he was its main advocate, and it was “cut in half” at a meeting he wasn’t a part of.
Ewing also squabbled with councilor G.T. Bynum and Bartlett over the $30 million pledged to Expo Square, at one point alluding to their support for the proposal being tied in with their mayoral candidacies.
Ewing accusing Bynum and Bartlett, as mayoral candidates, of siding w/county for that reason.
— Dylan Goforth (@DGoforth918) January 27, 2016
But those battles were just undercards to the night’s biggest bout, an on-again-off-again argument over the amount of money being given to the Tulsa Fire Department. The meeting recessed at about 8 p.m. before resuming about 30 minutes later — this time without Ewing, who was seated in the crowd. He took his place back with the other councilors moments later.
At one point, Henderson took the mic and said, “We’ve been here three hours and we ain’t did nothing.”
So some money got shuffled around, but no one seemed particularly happy.
During the intermission, Bynum told reporters there was a “real chance” that the proposal may not make it on an April ballot after all. (Councilors have set a self-imposed Thursday night deadline to decide, but Bynum said they could call for special meetings between now and Feb. 4, when the Tulsa County Election Board would need the final proposal.)
Missing that Feb. 4 deadline would mean voters would likely not see the issue on the ballot until Aug. 23.
Bribing the County?
Councilor Blake Ewing is quoted in one tweet as saying the proposal to include $30 million for improvements to Expo Square — Tulsa County owned, located in city limits — was essentially a bribe to keep the county from proposing its own 0.10 percent (one-tenth of a penny) Vision renewal package.
If the county were to do so, and both the city’s and county’s proposals passed, the sales tax in the city of Tulsa would increase from 8.517 percent to 9.017 percent.
— Jarrel Wade (@JWPrairieDog) January 27, 2016
Bribe? That’s a strong word. But it seems clear city officials are working hard to make sure the city’s sales tax rate does not increase.
Tulsa, like several other area communities, is proposing to renew only 0.55 percent of the existing 0.60 percent Vision 2025 sales tax when it expires at the end of the year.
That leaves the other 0.05 percent for the county to capture for its Vision renewal.
What distinguishes Tulsa’s offer from other communities pursuing their own Vision renewals is that those cities have not agreed to pay for any specific county projects — e.g. Expo Square — as Tulsa has.
Also unique to the deal is the city’s agreeing to allow the county to receive all of the surplus revenue left from the existing Vision 2025 package once area municipalities have been given their shares. The surplus is estimated at $15 million
So … is the city bribing the county? We won’t touch that one.
But keep this in mind: As proponents of the deal have often noted, the fairgrounds may be owned by the county, but it sits in the middle of town. And because of that, the city of Tulsa benefits greatly from the millions of dollars in sales tax dollars the facility generates each year.
Potential sales-tax generation has been one of the top — if not the top — criteria councilors and the mayor have used to measure what projects are worthy of being put on the ballot.
Ewing did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but County Commissioner Ron Peters did.
In an email to The Frontier, Peters said the county has stated for more than a year that it planned to ask voters to renew a 0.10 percent of the existing 0.60 percent Vision tax to cover county needs.
“Their (the city’s) response was we didn’t get that much in Vision 2025 so deal with it,” Peter said.
The county has been put in this situation because Tulsa and other municipalities decided unilaterally to do their own Vision renewals rather than leave it a countywide program, Peters said. In addition, the county lost its 4-To-Fix the County sales tax — used to fund its capital improvements — when the city choose to capture it during Mayor Kathy Taylor’s administration.
“Since we were at loggerheads, I offered a solution to hopefully resolve the issue and get everyone on the same page and moving forward in unison. That proposal was offered at a meeting attended by four city councilors, Mayor Bartlett, staff and incoming the incoming president of the Tulsa Chamber,” Peters said. “At the end of that meeting it was agreed by everyone in that room that the city would include the capital needs at Expo Square, $35 million, the county could have any remaining Vision 2025 money after the municipalities got their $45.5 million.”
Peters said the deal would still leave the county $20 million short of what it needs to fund its capital improvement projects.
“I don’t know how anyone could say this was anything but an agreement,” Peters said. “If anything, the county was blindsided when the cities and municipalities told us ‘they’ had decided that all we would get was 1/2 of a 1/10th (of a percent) — take it or leave it.
Tulsa Fire Department
At least three hours of Tuesday night’s five-hour meeting was seemingly dedicated to squabbling over the money being allocated to the Tulsa Fire Department.
On the first draft presented Tuesday, TFD was getting $82.5 million, a figure substantially higher than the mayor’s previous $45 million proposal several councilors seemed more comfortable with. Councilor Karen Gilbert advocated for the $82.5 million, which drew counters from Ewing and Lakin.
Blake Ewing and Phil Lakin have both expressed concern over $40 million to fire dept. without explanation of where exactly that money goes.
— Allison Harris (@AllisonFox4News) January 27, 2016
Ewing accused TFD of “piggy-backing” onto the Tulsa Police proposal and said he had not yet seen a list of what the $82 million “would buy for the citizens of Tulsa.” Lakin suggested waiting until a study, like the one completed last year for the police department, could be completed. That study, he said, would hopefully allow councilors to be more specific about the needs of the department and how much money would be required to fulfill those needs.
That led to an apology from Bartlett, who said the study wouldn’t be completed until next month, for which he took the blame.
“I will take full responsibility for tardiness of that study,” he said. “ No excuses, I got hung up on other things, but it will be done. … It’s my responsibility and my fault, I’m sorry.”
The proposed funding for the fire department was eventually trimmed to $70 million.
Two projects that saw their funding total drop Tuesday night, then go back up after money was reallocated were the Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum and the Gilcrease Museum.
The Gilcrease had been slated to receive $69 million, but when Tuesday’s meeting began, the draft showed $9 million had been cut.
Susan Neal, the Gilcrease Museum’s Chief Operating Officer, told councilors that the museum had originally planned on receiving $73 million, then saw it cut to $69.3 million, then down to $69 million.
Another $9 million dollar slice “would change (their proposal) significantly,” Neal said.
“You asked for something transformative. … At some point it makes it very untenable to do,” she told councilors. “I leave that to you. I know you are struggling, you have to do what’s in your heart. I would encourage you to think about the Gilcrease.”
When the night ended, Neal’s plea had apparently earned another $5 million, leaving the Gilcrease with a proposed $65 million.
Likewise, the Tulsa Zoo found itself losing a third of its portion of the Vision 2025 pie as Tuesday’s first proposal knocked $10 million off the $30 million they were slated to get.
Lindsay Hutchison, the zoo’s vice president of development, said the original $30 million was divvied up like this — $20 million for an elephant exhibit and $10 million for a new entrance.
Only getting $20 million would allow them to redo the elephant exhibit, which she said would bring in more outside money, but wouldn’t change “the bottleneck” at the front gates.
“We turn away revenue,” she said, claiming that visitors to the zoo at times can’t get into the entrance fast enough. “We haven’t had a significant investment from the city in 40 years. Only investing $20 million in 15 years is what got us into this problem.”
Hutchison said the zoo had originally sought $60 million, but had agreed to take a “$30 million cut” with the understanding they would receive that money later through a different source.
Councilor David Patrick, who apparently was unaware when Tuesday night’s meeting started that the zoo proposal had been docked $10 million, said he would offer to take $1.5 million from the airport proposal to give to the zoo if other councilors would agree to make similar cuts to their “pet projects” in order to get the zoo back to the $30 million mark.
“Sure,” Lakin said to laughs. “I’ll take $1.5 million out of the airport, too.”
The Latest Proposal
At the end of the night, here’s how each category of the city’s Vision 2025 renewal proposal changed:
Public Safety: Street maintenance and traffic operations were moved out of the Public Safety category and combined with transit operations, and then the Fire Department saw its funding allocation decreased from $82.5 million to $70 million
Nominally, transit was reduced by $33 million. But that number is not as clear cut as it sounds because street maintenance and traffic operations funding that had been part of public safety component was reallocated into transit before the $33 million was cut.
Economic development was cut by $115 million, from $642 million to $527 million.
The funding piece of the puzzle also changed. The council dropped a plan to capture the Improve Our Tulsa bond revenue for three years once the current package expires in 2019. That move was in response to concerns that that funding, about $50 million a year, will be needed to maintain streets. The same reasoning went into the council’s decision to reduce how much of the Improve Our Tulsa sales tax once it expires no later than July 2021.
The math can get complicated, but essentially the council is proposing using 0.50 percent of the existing 1.1 percent Improve Our Tulsa sales tax to fund Vision projects rather than 1 percent. (the other 0.10 percent will become part of the permanent public safety tax.)
Which brings us to that permanent public safety tax. That can get very complicated. As currently proposed, the tax would be 0.16 percent when it takes effect in Jan. 2017 and increase to 0.26 no later than July 2021, when the Improve Our Tulsa sales tax expires.
The simplest way to think of it is that the plan does not include a tax increase. Instead, councilors and the mayor will ask Tulsans to renew 0.55 percent of the existing 0.60 percent Vision 2025 sales tax, which expires at the end of the year.
They will also ask Tulsans to reallocate pieces of the existing Improve Our Tulsa capital improvements tax — approved by voters in 2013 — once it expires. A 10th of penny would go to public safety and half a penny would be used for two or three years to fund Vision projects.