City Councilor Karen Gilbert said Wednesday she would like to see Tulsans vote on a charter change this year that would set baseline funding levels for the Fire and Police departments out of the city's general fund. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

City Councilor Karen Gilbert said Thursday she is willing to hold off on pursuing a charter change that would set baseline funding levels for the Fire and Police departments out of the city’s general fund. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

A day after saying she would like to pursue a charter change this year to lock in minimum funding levels for the Police and Fire departments, City Councilor Karen Gilbert said Thursday she would wait to see if the charter amendment is needed.

Gilbert made her remarks after councilors spent more than an hour Thursday afternoon fine tuning the public safety sales tax ordinance that will be used to implement the $844 million VisionTulsa sales tax package. Later in the day, councilors unanimously approved three ordinances — one for the public safety tax, one for the transit tax and one for the economic development tax — that make up the VisionTulsa proposal.

Together, the taxes total 0.55 percent. If approved by voters April 5, the public safety and transit taxes would be permanent and the economic development tax would be 15 years.

“Let’s get through this and then see how things go with this,” public safety ordinance, Gilbert said. “And if we need to move forward with a charter change to secure those percentages, than I would be happy to lead that” effort.

She added: “We need to sit back and take a look at the budget that will be sent down to us, the mayor’s proposed budget.”

Historically, the city’s operating expenses — including Police and Fire department operations — have been paid out of the general fund, which is funded primarily through sales tax collections.

The Vision Tulsa public safety sales tax would provide a separate stream of revenue to hire 160 additional police officers and 65 additional firefighters.

Councilors, led by Gilbert, have been working for months to write the ordinance in such a way as to ensure that the permanent tax is used to increase manpower levels — not supplant existing public safety funding in the general fund.

The City Council is prohibited by law from obligating future City Councils and administrations to specific expenditures. But Tulsans can, by voting to change the city’s charter.

Gilbert said Wednesday she would like to pursue the charter change this year.

“It could come as early as June with primary votes,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert’s colleagues on the council were generally reluctant to push for a charter change Thursday. In interviews with The Frontier, only one councilor, G.T. Bynum, was steadfast in his support for putting the issue to a vote.

But even Bynum insisted this is not the time.

“First, we wait to see if it (Vision) passes,” he said. “Then, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that happens, and it sounds like the only means at our disposal to make sure it happens is a charter change.

“I do not want to tell citizens that they get 160 additional officers if they approve this and they don’t get it because of some shenanigans by a future mayor or council.”

Councilors Anna America, Jack Henderson, Phil Lakin and Blake Ewing said they did not believe the charter change was necessary.

“I think we have effectively done the same thing through this ordinance,” Lakin said. “We need to give this an opportunity to work.”

America said she was concerned that locking in set percentages of funding for public safety could potentially tie the hands of future administrations and City Councils. Other councilors expressed concern about unintended consequences such as the Police and Fire departments’ receiving a windfall should sales tax collections spike.

“People should have to man up and make these (funding) decisions and deal with them and do it in public and not blame the councilors five years earlier that said, ‘We have to do it this way,’” America said.

Councilors Connie Dodson and David Patrick said the issue was worth considering at some point.

Mayor Dewey Bartlett, who did not attend Thursday’s meetings, has said previously that he opposes using either a charter change or an ordinance to lock in future department funding.

Clay Ballenger, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said he was pleased with the public safety ordinance approved by councilors but still believes passing a charter change would be the best way to ensure minimum funding levels for police and firefighters are maintained in the general fund.

“That would be ideal,” he said.

Ballenger sent an email to councilors Wednesday saying the FOP might have difficulty supporting the public safety tax if it were not written in such a way as to maintain a baseline of funding for the Police Department out of the city’s general fund.

The public safety sales tax ordinance approved by the council Thursday keeps in place a chart that shows the percentage of the general fund the Police and Fire departments have received each of the last 10 years. The information is intended to provide future City Councils and administrations with a baseline from which to determine how much general fund revenue should be spent on the Police and Fire departments while not obligating city leaders to a specific funding level.

In recent years, the departments have combined to account for approximately 60 percent of the general fund budget.

The proposed public safety tax would take effect Jan. 1, 2017, at a rate of 0.16 percent. The tax would increase to 0.26 percent on July 1, 2016, and remain at that rate permanently. It is expected to raise $202 million for the Police Department over 15 years and $70 million for the Fire Department over the same period of time.

The total Vision Tulsa package would extend 0.55 percent of the existing 0.60 percent sales Vision tax. The proposal also includes $102 million for transit and $510.6 million for economic development.