By KEVIN CANFIELD
I don’t know about you, but all this talk of building dams in the Arkansas River and renewing the Vision 2025 sales tax can be a little confusing.
What is going to be built? Who is going to pay for it? Will the dam proposal be part of the Vision renewal?
What other projects will be built?
Now that the first series of town hall meetings on the dam proposal is over, The Frontier asked City Councilor and task force Chairman G.T. Bynum to help sort it all out.
First, some history. Vision 2025 was overwhelmingly approved by Tulsa County voters in 2003. The tax is 0.60 percent, or sixth-tenths of a penny. The BOK Center is the best known project to be funded through the sales tax, but hundreds of others, big and small, can be found throughout the county.
The tax will expire at the end of 2016, leaving communities to decide whether they would like to renew it.
The consensus has been a resounding “yes.” But unlike the original Vision proposal, which was a countywide vote, the renewal would be handled city by city. That means each city will determine what projects they want to fund, how much of the Vision tax they want to renew, and how long the tax will run.
The plan is to have each community hold its own election on the same day, perhaps as early as this fall.
Tulsa’s leaders have indicated that they expect to seek renewal of the entire tax, with about half going to build low-water dams in the Arkansas River and the other half going to other projects.
The low-water dam proposal presented at the town hall meetings calls for building or overhauling dams in Sand Springs, Tulsa, south Tulsa/Jenks and Bixby.
The estimated cost is $298 million and includes a $30 million maintenance and operations endowment.
The proposal is different from previous river packages in that only communities directly benefiting from the dams – Sand Springs, Tulsa, Jenks and Bixby – would be asked to pay for the dams.
Now let’s hear from Bynum.
Q: What is the Arkansas River Infrastructure Task Force and why was it created?
A: The Task Force was created in December 2013 by the cities of Tulsa, Sand Springs, Jenks, and Bixby, Tulsa County, the Creek Nation, and local business leaders to study the design and cost of constructing low-water dams in the Arkansas River.
Q: What was the dam proposal presented at the town hall meetings?
A: The proposal presented at public meetings was a draft our task force unanimously approved. The purpose of the town hall meetings were to expand the discussion on this topic beyond the confines of one task force and out to the citizens who will ultimately decide what we do.
Q: Is it a final proposal?
A: No. It is intended as a focus and foundation for public discussion
The final proposal will be based on the results of those public discussions. Normally, you would see a large public meeting to start a process like this and then the elected leaders decide what everyone will have a chance to vote on.
We decided to turn that process upside down, spending 18 months developing a draft that citizens could use as their starting point for a public decision making process.
Q: Now that the first series of town hall meetings is over, what issues were brought to your attention that need further attention?
A: I was pleased that we were able to address in a detailed way most of the questions that came up at the meetings. That made 19 months of homework worthwhile.
Probably the greatest challenge before us is to be able to show voters what changes in our community they could expect from this project.
People are less interested in infrastructure engineering and finance models (which was largely what we presented at the town halls) and more interested in impact. They want to know what kinds of development would be targeted and what its economic impact would be.
They want to see the kinds of activities they could partake in on the river. And they want to know that it will be a financially responsible approach.
Now that we’ve had feedback on the engineering and financing, we need to incorporate that into the next step.
Q: What comes next?
A: Our task force will reconvene Thursday, share what each of us heard at our town halls, and start refining the proposal.
Q: Is it the task force’s hope to have a proposal on the dams before voters in the fall?
A: From the outset our task force has agreed to take whatever time we need to take to develop a great proposal the right way. We won’t be rushed by arbitrary deadlines. We’ll put something on a ballot when we believe it is ready.
Q: Will funding for the dams be a separate ballot question?
A: Our task force has not discussed ballot structure. We’ve been focused on the content of the proposal first.
Q: How will it be paid for, and who would pay?
A: Under the current proposal, a partial renewal of the Vision 2025 sales tax (.3% – or 3 cents on every 10 dollars in purchases) would be assessed in those communities along the river corridor that benefit from river infrastructure. It would run for 11 years.
Q: How is this proposal any different from earlier river proposals?
A: Earlier proposals were either major real estate development proposals, part of a larger package, or it was reliant on federal funding. This proposal is none of those things. It is intended as a stand-alone, simple proposal that would be reliant on no one other than those of us locally who benefit from it.
Q: Rather than spend millions of dollars to build dams to capture water in the river, why not just release more water from Keystone Dam?
A: Releasing additional water from Keystone Dam instead of building dams is not a realistic option – either technically or legally. The water available for release from Keystone Dam is owned by the Southwestern Power Administration and they are not interested in selling it to us. Even if they were, releasing enough water from Keystone to fill our river corridor all day would drain Keystone Lake.
Q: Will people be allowed to swim in the lakes behind the dams?
A: The main activities the lakes would offer are watercraft-based (small boats, kayaks, canoes, etc.). Swimming is not encouraged due to the uneven nature of the riverbed and the currents traveling through the water in a river. It is important to note that we are not proposing the lakes solely for the activity you can do in the water. Much of their value lies in better utilizing a natural asset to create a setting of beauty. That is what attracts people and development. One can admire a range of mountains without being required to climb them. The same goes with restoring water to the channel it inhabited for all of history until the last 50 years (when Keystone Dam was built and our prairie river became a hydropower generation runoff ditch).
Q: Couldn’t money be better spent on other needs like transportation, law enforcement, parks and other city needs?
A: That’s the great thing about democracy: ultimately the citizens will decide what the highest and best use of their money is.
Q: Do you have any studies showing how much economic development the dams would produce?
A: There are two layers of economic development. There is the first level: direct real estate investment. We will have an economic analysis of that impact available long before anyone is asked to vote on a dam proposal.
The second layer, which is harder to quantify, is what has drawn the interest of many of our largest employers to this topic: the degree to which Tulsa becomes a more appealing place for the recruitment and retention of employees.
That is one of the greatest economic challenges we as a community face: attracting employees for our largest employers so they remain competitive with larger cities that have amenities we don’t.
Q: What benefit would Tulsa receive from dams in Sand Springs, south Tulsa/Jenks and Bixby?
A: The benefit to Tulsans of the Sand Springs dam is water storage.
Right now, water is released for a few hours from Keystone Dam on about five days a week in order to generate hydroelectric power. It travels through Tulsa in the middle of the night and is far downstream by the time most of us wake up in the morning.
The Sand Springs dam would allow us to store that water, and release it at a steady flow all day long, which would improve water quality and increase the amount of water between our two lakes in Tulsa.
South Tulsa-Jenks dam would create a lake several miles in length that would serve as a foundation for economic development and recreation. Bixby dam is a regional benefit.
Q: How were the dam sites selected?
A: The sites were selected by engineers using two main criteria. First, how high a dam can you build without interfering in the 100 year floodplain (those areas with a 1% chance of flooding). Second, given a dam of that height, how much shoreline do you get by building it.
The whole river channel is sloping downhill so what you want to find are those areas where the slope is more gradual and thus more conducive to a long shoreline.
Q: Why does the dam proposal include a maintenance and operations endowment?
This proposal contains funding for an operations and maintenance endowment, so voters can have confidence that anything they build will be properly maintained for its lifetime. We could not find another example of a community anywhere that has taken this approach to a capital program before, so we decided to lead here in Tulsa.
A: Will Tulsa County have projects in the Vision 2025 renewal?
The county should certainly have funding to cover their capital needs, and they should also serve as a partner with other communities on those projects of regional significance. The county has been a partner from Day 1 on the river lakes program.
Q: The City Council and Mayor’s Office on Monday began a series of public meetings to gather proposals from the public on non-dam-related projects that might be funded through a Vision renewal. How will those projects differ from the river proposal, and will those projects be voted on separately from the dam proposal?
A: The river is just one project being considered as part of the renewal of Vision 2025. All of the items on the ballot would fall under the renewal of Vision 2025 and would not represent a tax increase. The river lakes idea happens to be a very complex and expensive item, so we’ve been developing it separately but it would be on the ballot along with any other proposals up for consideration as part of Vision 2025. It’s just like grilling a cheeseburger: some parts take longer to prepare but they all end up as one burger.
For a complete list of public hearings on the Vision 2025 renewal and information on how to submit a proposal, go to www.cityoftulsa.org/vision