When voters go to the polls June 28 for the mayoral primary, chances are they won’t be basing their decisions on which candidate played a more consequential role in getting the permanent public safety tax passed.
But they might consider which candidate — Mayor Dewey Bartlett or challenger G.T. Bynum — is shooting straight about how that tax came to be.
Thus the fireworks over Bynum’s claim that it was other people, not Bartlett, who did the leg work to get the public safety sales tax approved as part of the Vision Tulsa package.
The squabble has been a bonanza for social media lovers, with the mayor, his wife, the president of the police union and the never-reticent City Councilor Blake Ewing all weighing in on Facebook.
But the exchange has been less than satisfying, too, because like any debate, there are two sides — at least — to the story, and the facts in this particular one have gotten lost in the war of words.
So, today we try to answer this question: What, exactly, was Bartlett’s role in putting the public safety tax together as part of the Vision Tulsa package?
First, some background.
This whole flap began on Tuesday, April 12, when Bartlett and Bynum took part in a question-and-answer session hosted by the Republican Women’s Club of Tulsa County.
At the end of his closing statement, Bynum said this of the permanent public safety tax: “Nobody in this city deserves more credit for that then (City Councilor) Karen Gilbert.”
After the event, he added: “The difference between when the mayor proposed that three years ago and when it actually happened last week was that Karen Gilbert stepped up and did the work to put a proposal together. She sat through week after week, month after month of task force meetings to put a proposal together. … Karen did the work.
“That’s the difference: I’m not going to take credit for things that I didn’t work on.”
Bartlett responded the next day on his campaign Facebook page, saying he “won’t sit idly by and let my opponents distort the truth about my administration.”
He added: “I had hoped we had moved past the negative campaign from three years ago, but Councilor Bynum stooped to mudslinging on Day One of the mayoral campaign.
“Let’s be clear. Not only was I involved in the Vision negotiations from the first day, but my administration established the framework.”
Councilor Ewing responded to Bartlett’s post in his typical, understated way:
“We (councilors) remember what really happened. We remember that you were absentee through the (Vision Tulsa) process. We remember that you contributed almost nothing. We remember you having no plan, no vision of your own, and no big ideas about how to advance the city.”
Then came this, from the mayor’s wife, Victoria:
“Thank you Dewey for setting the record straight on your long term dedication and success to add public safety to the Vision Tulsa package without a tax increase and in overcoming those city councilors, including G.T. Bynum and Blake Ewing, who persistently fought to have it excluded or have it as a separate tax increase package.”
And then, just when things were really getting dizzying, Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police President Clay Ballenger accused the mayor on Facebook of trying to use a 2013 letter Ballenger sent to Bartlett regarding the public safety tax as evidence of the Police Department’s support for Bartlett.
“To set the record straight for all who might see this post on Mayor Bartlett’s page, the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police nor I have made any decision to support Mayor Bartlett politically at any time in the past or present,” Ballenger wrote.
To which Bartlett replied: “Just to put your mind at ease Clay, I don’t want this to look like an endorsement. The people of Tulsa have elected me twice — both times without the support of unions and special interests like yours.”
Ain’t politics fun.
Any argument over who deserves credit for something will inevitably be colored by perception, which owes a lot to self-interest and personal loyalties. But there is a documented history of how the city’s public safety sales tax came to be — at least the history that was made in public.
Here is a summary of that history:
— Others before him, including City Councilor Jack Henderson, have suggested providing a dedicated funding source for public safety. But beginning about three years ago, it was Mayor Bartlett who initiated the discussion again and has pushed the idea ever since.
— May 2013: Bartlett proposed using the old 0.167 percent 4 to Fix the County tax — which Tulsa voters had captured in 2008 to pay for capital improvements — to hire 70 new police officers, 45 firefighters and 15 street maintenance employees as well as other public safety needs. The tax as proposed then would have been permanent, but Bartlett had said earlier that he was open to either a permanent or temporary tax. The proposal never gained traction.
— The following summer, Bartlett proposed extending the existing Vision 2025 package, with a third of the 6/10ths of a penny going to public safety and the remainder going to river development and other economic development programs.
— He pitched the proposal again in his State of the City address in August 2014 and has been a constant advocate ever since.
— When, in the summer of 2014, Bartlett unveiled a plan to use the city’s portion of the Vision 2025 sales tax renewal for a permanent public safety tax, he told the Tulsa World that he could also see it being a countywide public safety initiative since communities throughout Tulsa County needed more funding for law enforcement.
— On April 20, 2015, Bartlett presented city councilors with a 15-year, 2/10ths-of-a-penny public safety tax proposal that would have paid for 70 police officers, 34 firefighters and 29 street maintenance and traffic personnel over 15 years. The mayor left open the question of whether the tax would be permanent or 15 years.
— Also in April 2015, City Council Karen Gilbert presented a proposal calling for a tax — separate from Vision — to fund public safety. The proposal called for levying a permanent 0.4 percent sales tax to pay for 140 police officers, 102 firefighters and 36 positions for street maintenance, traffic safety and traffic engineering.
— The Tulsa Regional Chamber also advocated for keeping public safety operating expenses out of Vision, saying the city should stick to the original intent of Vision 2025, which was to pay for capital projects.
— The public safety funding formula took shape in the summer of 2015 when Gilbert and Bartlett announced a compromise. The compromise called for using 0.2 percent of the Vision renewal as well as 0.1 percent of the city’s Improve Our Tulsa sales tax once it expires, as well as use tax revenue.
— The compromise would have paid for 160 police officers, 65 firefighters and street maintenance and traffic personnel, based on 15-year revenue projections.
— The public safety tax discussion changed again in late 2015, when a University of Cincinnati study found that the Police Department needed 206 officers.
— Ultimately, the public safety tax approved by voters on April 5 as part of Vision Tulsa was slightly different from the Gilbert/Bartlett compromise. It includes 0.16 percent of the Vision tax and 0.1 percent of the Improve Our Tulsa revenue stream once the tax expires, but it does not include use tax revenue. It funds 160 police officers and 65 firefighters, as well as street maintenance and traffic personnel.
The Debate Goes On
The debate over who deserves credit for the public safety package was complicated even more when Councilor Gilbert stated recently said that the public safety tax formula that she and Bartlett announced last year was actually put together by her and Bynum.
“Remember, about a year ago, we did a press conference with a compromise of a funding mechanism, so, the person that came up with that funding formula for public safety was G.T. Bynum,” Gilbert told The Frontier. “And we took it up to the Mayor’s Office and talked to him.”
Gilbert said the same thing recently on Facebook.
“I sat down with Councilor Bynum and came up with a plan that would accomplish my goals of properly funding police and fire while incorporating it within Vision and maintaining the current sales tax rate. The compromise was taken to the Mayor and he jumped on board.”
Bartlett was asked by The Frontier whether he agreed with Gilbert’s assertion that it was she and Bynum, not he and Gilbert, who came up with the funding compromise for public safety.
The mayor, through his campaign manager, Matt Faeth, did not respond directly to the question.
“I would agree that the reason they had to compromise was because I insisted on including public safety in the Vision package without raising taxes. I didn’t have to compromise because the deal we made was simply them giving up on raising taxes and conforming to my position by including public safety in Vision,” the mayor wrote.
The statement goes on to accuse “GT and his allies on the council” of trying to raise taxes and push public safety out of Vision.
Bynum, for his part, has said that his intent was never to portray the mayor as having no role in the creation of public safety tax. But he stands by his position that it was Gilbert who did the heavy lifting to get the plan implemented.
“It is my hope Tulsans interested in the true story will listen to people who were directly involved rather than believe spin from a political campaign spokesman who had nothing to do with the years of work that went into Vision’s successful passage,” Bynum said.
He went on to note that Gilbert led 25 Public Safety Task Force meetings while Bartlett attended three.
“To first attempt taking sole credit for its passage, and then to attempt to smear the reputations of others who worked hard on it for your own political gain is beneath what we should expect from the Office of the Mayor. We can do better,” Bynum said.
Yes, we are back where we started — with some good old mudslinging going on.
Here’s one thing to remember when chewing this over: The creation of the public safety tax — which would become part of the Vision renewal package — was years in the making.
You can bet there were plenty of closed-door meetings that went into putting it together that the public never even knew about.
What was said in those meetings surely informs the tone and tenor of the candidates’ public discussions of the issue today.
So don’t expect the candidates to ever see eye-to-eye on this subject. This is a political campaign we’re in the middle of, after all, not a history symposium.