Bynum says he supports commercial development at 71st Street and Riverside Drive "so long as it is a benefit to the overall riverfront experience."
Mayor Dewey Bartlett gives his final State of the City speech Tuesday. Twenty days later, on Dec. 5, Mayor-elect G.T. Bynum will be sworn in as the city’s 40th mayor.
Twenty days isn’t very long. Since defeating Bartlett in the June 28 election, Bynum has left his full-time job at his consulting firm, Capitol Ventures, to concentrate on his work as a city councilor and prepare for his new job.
During the campaign, Bynum set some lofty goals: to make Tulsa the best place in the state to get an education; to improve pay and benefits for public safety workers; to increase life-expectancy rates for north Tulsa residents; to better relations with Tulsa County; and much, much more.
Those are his objectives. But he will also inherit some unfinished business from his predecessor.
So, with less than a month to go before he takes office, The Frontier asked Bynum to talk about what he plans to do about nine key issues he will assume from Bartlett.
1. Proposed REI development at 71st and Riverside Drive
The Frontier: This project has been stuck in lawsuit limbo since the day the deal was signed Aug. 11, 2015. The agreement, between North Point Property Co. LLC of Dallas and the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority, calls for North Point to purchase approximately nine acres of TPFA land on Helmerich Park for $1.465 million. The terms of the contract require that the anchor tenant on the commercial development be one that specializes “in the sale of high-end sporting goods and outdoor merchandise.” City officials and the developer have acknowledged that the company is Recreational Equipment Inc.
A lawsuit filed the same day the contract was signed seeks to prevent the project from moving forward. The plaintiffs, including former Mayor Terry Young, object to the use of park property for commercial development and believe TPFA did not have the authority to sell the land, and that it failed to follow proper procedures in doing so.
Recently, TPFA authorized its chairman to enter into mediation with the plaintiffs. However, the issue is not expected to be resolved before you take office.
Do you support the REI project as it is proposed for the 71st Street and Riverside Drive site? Why? If not, what would you like to see there? And in what time frame would you like to see that issue resolved?
Bynum: “I want the chance as mayor to sit down with both sides of the proposal and see what compromise can be developed. I actually don’t think the two sides are that far apart, and the city should have been a better facilitator of those discussions from the beginning.
“I also want the citizens of Tulsa to have their voice heard on this, as they have been paying for the maintenance of that land for decades. But I would like the opportunity to present any compromise proposal that can be agreed upon to them, and to get their feedback. In fairness to the developers and to the citizens, I hope to have this resolved early in my administration.”
The Frontier: Some people have suggested that no commercial development should be allowed on the property in question. Do you agree? Why?
Bynum: “I support development at that location so long as it is a benefit to the overall riverfront experience. That area is zoned for development. Development there is contemplated in the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan, which was adopted as part of our city’s comprehensive plan. So, the question in my mind is not whether or not there will ever be development there. That has been repeatedly established through our planning processes. The question is what kind of development is appropriate there, given that this is a highly unique piece of land.”
The Frontier: The mayor has a seat on the TPFA board. However, since the agreement for the sale of the land is between the authority — not the city of Tulsa — and the developer, is it even realistic to believe the mayor can affect the outcome of the dispute? And if so, how?
Bynum: “I definitely believe the mayor can have an impact on resolving this dispute.”
2. Leasing or selling parks
The Frontier: Mayor Bartlett initiated a process of looking at the sale or lease of park properties no longer being used for park purposes. The idea was to reduce the Park and Recreation Department’s maintenance costs — and potentially make some money through sales or leases — to help the department’s already strained budget.
Is this an initiative you plan to continue when you are mayor?
Bynum: “I intend to work with the Parks Board and Tulsa Parks staff to review the status of all of our parks and seek their advice on the best way to utilize our green spaces.
“We have some parks that are completely landlocked and inaccessible to Tulsans. We have others that a third party might be able to operate better than the city can. I want us to consider issues like these with an open mind.
“One issue on which I will not waiver is this: any proceeds the city derives from the sale or leasing of park land should be used for the betterment of other parks — it should not be used for non-park purposes.
3. Contracts with police and firefighters
The Frontier: The city of Tulsa and the police and firefighters unions have been negotiating fiscal year 2017 contracts since the spring.
During your campaign, you indicated that you wanted to ensure that police officers and firefighters receive wages and benefits in keeping with comparable-sized cities.
Given Tulsa’s projected revenue shortfalls for the current fiscal year, how do you make good on that pledge while living within the city’s revenue stream? And do you expect to be able to reach a deal with the police union in the first few months of your administration?
Bynum: “There are two points of reference to consider here: the short term and the long term. In the long term, my administration plans to work with the Fraternal Order of Police and the Firefighters Local to identify other potential sources of revenue to pay a competitive wage moving forward. We do not have the tools needed to do that on day one, but working together I believe we will get there. Our interests here are aligned, and I think you will see a much more collaborative advocacy approach between the Mayor’s Office, the City Council and those entities than you’ve seen in the past.
“In the short term: I am not involved in the current negotiations between the city and the unions, and therefore can’t knowledgably comment on timeframe expectations.”
4. City/County jail agreement
The Frontier: The city and Tulsa County have not had a contract for holding city of Tulsa municipal inmates in the Tulsa Jail since June 2014.
As part of an informal agreement, the city has agreed to pay the county $69 per municipal inmate.
You indicated in your campaign that you had been convinced by county officials that the city should be paying more to hold its inmates in the Tulsa Jail.
Given the city’s lower-than-expected sales tax revenues, how can the city afford to pay more? And when do you expect to have a deal with the city done?
Bynum: “I expect to have an agreement with Tulsa County worked out on the jail early in my administration.”
5. Completion of Riverside Drive/Gathering Place
The Frontier: City Engineer Paul Zachary has said that the city is coordinating the re-opening of Riverside Drive near A Gathering Place for Tulsa park with the opening of the park in 2017?
Is that still the schedule, and does the city have a more specific date as to when the roadway will open?
Bynum: Bynum deferred this question to City Engineer Paul Zachary.
Zachary told The Frontier that the city plans to coordinate the opening of Riverside Drive with the opening of A Gathering Place.
He added that the city could possibly open the road earlier but “only if it does not create a safety issue or does not create a problem for the finishing of the park.”
Jeff Stava, who is overseeing construction of the park for the George Kaiser Family Foundation, said the park is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2017. The date the park will open has not be announced.
6. Open Tulsa Initiative
The Frontier: The city put the Open Tulsa Initiative you helped champion on hold in February due to security concerns and rebooted it in early August. The open-data program is intended to improve transparency by making data compiled by the city more accessible to the public.
Citizen hackers say they can use the data to create apps that Tulsans could use for such things as finding parking spaces or accessing public safety information.
What are your specific goals for the program in the first year of your administration?
Bynum: “We are creating an Office of Performance Strategy & Innovation. This office will fold what had been the Maximizing and Advancing Performance Office — into a larger approach that will have two initial areas of focus: using data to help city departments determine the best strategies for outstanding service delivery, and making Tulsa a model in the use of open data.
“I have been a strong advocate of both during my time on the City Council and am excited to be in a position to execute on those ideals as mayor.”
7. Vision Tulsa
The Frontier: The city will begin collecting the Vision Tulsa sales tax Jan. 1, 2017. The $884.6 million package will fund a variety of projects, including the reconstruction of Zink Dam, a new low-water dam in south Tulsa, a BMX facility at Expo Square and an extensive renovation of Gilcrease Museum. In addition, the permanent pieces of the tax plan will pay for hiring 165 new police officers and additional firefighters.
Assuming the Vision Tulsa revenue will be disbursed over several years, when will recipients be informed of how much money they will receive in the first year? And how will that determination be made?
Bynum: “A first draft funding schedule may be developed before I take office, or it will occur shortly after. We are bringing in a chief of Community Development & Policy, who will coordinate Vision implementation initiatives between Engineering, Planning, and Finance. I plan to work closely with my City Council colleagues in determining the proper sequencing of projects.”
The Frontier: The Fire Department is set to receive $70 million in Vision Tulsa funding, much of it originally intended to put a fourth firefighter on trucks (65 firefighters would be hired in all). Yet a study commissioned by the city has found that a fourth firefighter may not be needed on trucks.
Do you believe the Vision Tulsa funds should be used to put a fourth firefighter on trucks, or do you prefer using the money for other purposes?
If you prefer using the money for other purposes, what would those purposes be? And what would you say to Tulsans who argue that they were misled about the need for additional firefighters?
Bynum: “I plan to work closely with our Tulsa Fire Department and the City Council to utilize Vision public safety funds in the best way to keep Tulsans safe. At the outset, we know a station in east Tulsa needs to be constructed and staffed. Beyond that, we will implement the program based on the recommendations of experts — both internal and external.
The Frontier: When can Tulsans expect to see the first police officers hired using Vision Tulsa sales tax revenue?
Bynum: “This is included in the budget for the current fiscal year.” (The city’s 2017 fiscal year budget shows the Vision Tulsa tax will be used to hire 30 police officers and 20 firefighters.)
The Frontier: Construction of the south Tulsa dam is contingent on a multi-million dollar contribution from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation or another entity.
How long can the city wait before it secures funding from the tribe, or some other entity, without jeopardizing the project? And have you been given any indication when the tribe might make its decision?
Bynum: “I respect the Muscogee Creek Nation’s need to go through a due diligence process. We took three years of intense focus to go through ours. I echo Mayor Bartlett’s support for giving them more time, and would like to see Tulsa mirror the city of Jenks’s expiration date in 2020.
“We were very clear with the citizens of Tulsa, and have been with the Muscogee Creek Nation’s leadership, that if the Nation doesn’t contribute, the dam will not be built. Nothing has changed in that regard.”
8. Performing Arts Center land sale
The Frontier: The Performing Arts Center trust is considering a proposal from an Ohio developer to build a mixed-use development covering an entire city block downtown. The space is currently used for parking and was once identified as a property that could be used for a PAC expansion.
The proposal calls for constructing 220 apartments, a grocery store, retail space and a 560-space parking structure with 353 spaces dedicated to commercial, city, and PAC parking.
The Mayor’s Office has a seat on the trust, and Mayor Bartlett has come out in favor of the project.
Do you support the proposal in its current form? Why? If not, how would you like to see it changed?
Bynum: “I support the project and appreciate the very deliberate process the Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust has gone through to make sure it is the right deal for the PAC. On something of this magnitude, you only get one shot at it so being prudent and un-rushed is the responsible way to proceed. I know some downtown enthusiasts have wanted them to hurry it along, but I think they’ve done the right thing every step of the way.”
9. Pension Reform
The Frontier: Mayor Bartlett has worked over the past two years to change the city’s employee retirement system from a defined benefit, or traditional pension, to a defined contribution, or 401k program.
The change would apply only to new employees.
Bartlett proposed the change to ensure the long-term financial viability of the retirement system, which has an approximately $113 million liability. The liability represents the difference between benefits the city is obligated to pay and the funding it has to pay them.
As a first step in the pension-reform process, the mayor proposed — and the City Council approved — a pension funding program that would pay off the existing liability in 30 years.
The next step is for the city to change its pension program. The three options include a defined contribution, or 401k, program, a modified pension program that would change such things as the retirement age, or a hybrid program.
Do you plan to continue Mayor Bartlett’s efforts to change the city’s retirement program?
If so, which of the three options do you plan to pursue, and why? Do you plan to make the change to the city’s pension system in your first year of office? If not, when?
Bynum: “Mayor Bartlett and I are in agreement on the need to protect the long-term viability of the city’s pension system.
“This gets to two of the most important considerations for any mayor: the financial stability of both the city government and our city employees and their families.
“When you look around the country, poorly managed pension systems are the leading cause of municipal bankruptcies. Fortunately, ours has been managed well and we don’t face a crisis. But we do have a responsibility to be good stewards.
“I plan to work with our finance team and our city employees themselves in evaluating all options before determining the proper approach.”
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