Twenty-one Tulsans representing all parts of town oversee every capital improvement project undertaken by the city of Tulsa.
The Sales Tax Overview Committee was established in 1980, the same year Tulsans approved a third-penny sales tax to fund capital improvement projects. Since then, the list of projects overseen by the committee — including those in the Fix Our Streets and Improve Our Tulsa packages — has grown to about 300. And it’s about to get a lot longer.
When the $884.6 million Vision Tulsa sales tax package takes effect Jan. 1, the committee’s workload will increase with the addition of approximately $510 million more in capital improvement projects.
But neither the STOC nor any other independent body will be monitoring how the city spends the other two pieces of the Vision Tulsa package — permanent taxes to fund public safety and transportation/street maintenance operations.
The public safety tax is expected to generate $202 million for police and $70 million for the Fire Department operations over 15 years. The street maintenance, traffic and transportation sales tax, meanwhile, is expected to raise $102 million over 15 years.
City Manager Jim Twombly said the reason an independent committee oversees sales tax dollars spent to build things but not sales tax dollars used to fund operations is simple.
“The budgeting process itself (for city operations) is a very public, deliberative process,” Twombly said. “Everything is on TGOV, there are public hearings.”
In fact, the city’s budgeting process — which is just beginning for fiscal year 2017 — includes a speech by the mayor detailing the budget, public City Council deliberations and the receipt of public comments before the budget is voted on by the council.
The process for getting capital improvement projects funded and built is different. Most of the public scrutiny of projects comes before residents go to the polls to vote on a sales tax to pay for them. Once the vote is taken, it can be years before a project is built, and the allocation of funds, while listed in the mayor’s budget, typically does not come under the same kind of public scrutiny as operational expenditures in the general fund.
The Sales Tax Overview Committee is designed to provide regular, in-depth oversight of long-term projects, Twombly said.
“I think at the time (it was created), there was a feeling that in order to be sure there is citizen input and citizen oversight on an ongoing basis, let’s create this committee that we report to in terms of when a project is going to start, where they are, are they coming in under budget, over budget, on time, that kind of thing,” he said.
When voters approved the Vision Tulsa package in April, Tulsa became one of about a dozen cities in the state to have a dedicated sales tax for public safety. It turns out Tulsa is not alone in lacking a citizens oversight committee for its public safety operations tax. Neither do Oklahoma City, Owasso, Edmond and Lawton, to name a few.
Owasso Assistant City Manager Sherry Bishop said city officials believe Owasso’s .35 percent public safety tax — along with dedicated sales taxes for fire and street maintenance — are appropriately scrutinized through the city’s regular budgeting process.
“We really have taken the approach that we will show that funding in the budget each year,” Bishop said. “It clearly indicates that they are going to those three purposes.”
Casey Moore, public information officer for the city of Edmond, said the city relies on administrative and City Council oversight to ensure that the community’s .375 percent public safety tax is being spent wisely.
“Ultimately, the City Council approves it,” Moore said.
Oklahoma City has two public safety taxes in play — one that has since expired to fund capital projects, and a second, .75 percent tax to fund operations.
M.T. Berry, Oklahoma City’s assistant city manager, said an internal committee made up of city officials oversees the expenditure of funds from the expired capital improvements tax but that no oversight committee exists for the public safety operations tax.
The City Council is charged with approving separately the expenditure of public safety sales tax dollars for a new project, such as the purchase of body cameras, Berry said.
Otherwise, operational expenses “are all done through the regular budgeting process,” Berry said.
Residents of Lawton in 2014 approved a 10-year, 4.25 percent sales tax extension, nearly three-fourths of which will go to fund public safety capital and operating expenses.
Jim Russell, the city’s assistant city manager for administration, said Lawton has a joint citizen/City Council watchdog committee that meets twice a year to review city revenue collections and expenditures.
“But nothing specific to public safety,” Russell said.
City Councilor Karen Gilbert, a key advocate for the permanent public safety tax, said the creation of an oversight committee was discussed during Public Safety Task Force meetings.
“But it is going to go through the regular budget cycle,” Gilbert said. “There are so many eyes on it.”
She also noted that while the Sales Tax Overview Committee is charged with overseeing capital improvement projects, it keeps a close eye on the city’s overall sales tax collections.
Former Fraternal Order of Police President Clay Ballenger played a critical role in getting Tulsa’s public safety tax approved. He said he’s mentioned the possible creation of an oversight committee previously and is still open to the idea.
“I think it depends on the makeup of it, who is selected,” he said. “It’s not too late to set up a process for how they are designated.”
City spokeswoman Kim MacLeod said that the city has no plans to create a citizens oversight committee for the public safety and transportation/street maintenance operations taxes.
Sales Tax Overview Committee
The purpose of the committee is “to review and report upon the expenditures of third-penny capital improvements sales tax revenues as set forth by city ordinances and the expenditure of any funds derived from the sales of general obligation capital improvements bonds,” according to the city of Tulsa’s website.
The full committee meets once a month. The STOC’s two subcommittees each meet once a month. The STOC reports to the City Council once a month.
Each of the city’s nine city councilors recommends two people from his or her district to serve on the committee; the mayor recommends three members. Members must be qualified to vote in the city of Tulsa and cannot be an elected public official.
Members are confirmed by the City Council and serve four-year terms.
STOC members include Vanessa Hall-Harper, Rhonda Hinrichs, Diane Peacock, Robert Webber, Karen O’Brien, Gregory Vosberg, David Cordell, Ashley Webb, Elaine Riddle, Cassidy Fahler, Ida Ivey, Charlotte Frazier, Steven Roemerman, Kraig McFarland, William Colvard, Cameron MacLeod, Richard Wilson, Douglas Turner, Melody Phillips, Dana Hutton, Karen Langdon.