Seven of Tulsa’s nine city councilors said this week that they would consider placing a full one-cent Vision 2025 sales tax renewal on the ballot in April should enough projects warrant funding and no other revenue sources be available.
“We’ve been scrounging around trying to come up with something,” said Councilor David Patrick. “I would be open to discussing that, for sure.”
Councilor Anna America said it would be irresponsible for councilors to not be open to considering other funding sources, including increasing the Vision 2025 tax, if they determine that there are enough projects worthy of funding.
“My preference is that we find other ways (to find more funding), frankly, because I don’t like using sales tax,” said America, who described the tax as regressive.
Councilor Blake Ewing told The Frontier that making the Vision tax renewal a full cent is “what should happen.”
Other councilors who said they would consider raising the tax to one cent were Connie Dodson, Karen Gilbert, Jeannie Cue and Jack Henderson.
Councilor Phil Lakin said funding sources can’t be nailed down until councilors determine what projects the Vision renewal would include and how much they would cost.
G.T. Bynum was the only councilor to reject the idea.
“At some point we have to prioritize, and that funding rate was good enough to fund a number of transformative projects over the last 12 years,” Bynum said. “I also think you would endanger the entire enterprise if you made it a tax increase.”
The Frontier interviewed the councilors earlier this week, just days after a Tulsa Regional Chamber informal survey of its board of directors and advisory board found almost no support for including Mayor Dewey Bartlett’s and City Councilor Karen Gilbert’s plan to use Vision renewal funds to pay for more police officers, firefighters and streets maintenance crews.
Persons familiar with the Chamber meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Frontier that the vote against using the Vision renewal for ongoing public safety expenses was 92-8.
The vote reflected the Chamber’s support for continuing to use Vision for “visionary projects” rather than operating expenses, and should not be interpreted as a rejection of providing more money for public safety, according to those sources.
The Chamber has taken no formal position on the public-safety proposal.
The proposal calls for extending a third of the 6/10ths of a cent Vision tax and 0.1 percent of the Improve Our Tulsa sales tax to fund public safety. The plan would pay for 140 police officers as well as additional firefighters and street maintenance crews.
The Vision sales tax expires at the end of 2016 and Improve Our Tulsa sales tax will expire no later than 2022. Together, the taxes would raise an estimated $27.5 million a year.
Bartlett on Wednesday said he strongly opposes raising the Vision 2025 sales tax rate to one cent and that he still believes the city could cover its public safety needs with the existing funding proposal.
“Presently, the city of Tulsa has the 12th-highest rate of sales tax – city, county and state – among major cities in the U.S.,” Bartlett said.
The rate would increase to almost 10 percent if voters approved an increase in the Vision tax and University of Oklahoma President David Boren’s proposal to add a one-cent statewide sales tax for education, Bartlett said.
“That would put us in the elite 10-percenters club” and give Tulsa the second-highest sales tax rate among major cities, with Chicago No. 1, Bartlett said.
Increasing the city’s sales tax would put local businesses at a competitive disadvantage and hit low-income residents the hardest, the mayor said.
“If they buy 50 bucks of food, five bucks is going fly out of their pockets (in taxes),” Bartlett said.
When they pay that $5 tax bill, the mayor added, they will not be thinking about what government services the money will fund.
“To them it’s food on the table, and that is a fact,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett said the city should move forward with the existing public safety plan, noting that it will take several years to hire and train 140 to 150 new officers.
By the time the new officers are in place, Bartlett said, new technology and policing methods – as well as other unforeseeable factors – may end up altering the city’s police needs.
Rather than base a tax increase on the numbers in the police study, the more prudent approach would be to implement the existing public-safety plan and reassess police needs down the road, Bartlett said.
“The concept of living within our means (and) not to have a tax increase is more of important today then it was three years ago,” when I proposed the public-safety package, Bartlett said.
Councilors for months have been working to cobble together a Vision renewal package based on the assumption that the city’s portion of the renewal would be .55 percent of a penny, with .05 percent going to Tulsa County.
But the numbers aren’t adding up yet.
The tax renewal is projected to raise $226 million if it runs five years; $470 million if it runs 10 years; and $732 million if it runs 15 years.
That’s not nearly enough to cover the more than $2 billion in Vision project requests councilors have received. A proposal to build low-water dams and related infrastructure in and around the Arkansas River has been estimated to cost $200 million, and councilors received another $2 billion-plus in requests for other economic development projects.
Adding to the number crunch is the public-safety proposal, which would use up slightly more than one third of the projected revenue from the Vision.
So, instead of having $226 million in revenue over five years, the number is closer to $144 million. In 10 years, about $300 million would be available for non-public-safety projects. In 15 years, the figure is $466 million.
The math became even more complicated last week when the city Finance Department reported that the Vision renewal would not cover the cost of hiring the 175 to 206 new police officers officials say are needed — even with funding from other sources thrown in.
That leaves councilors with choices sure to upset someone: eliminate or reduce funding for public safety, or modify the plan; create a separate funding mechanism for public safety; drastically reduce the low-water dam or economic development package — or both — to pay for public safety; or find more money.
Gilbert — along with many of her fellow councilors — stressed that it is too early to know what funding sources would work best because the list of projects to be funded has not been finalized.
“There is no way we are going to be able to fund every single project that has been listed,” she said.
Gilbert said she would consider the one-cent sales tax only if public safety were part of the package.
“I am going to do whatever it takes to get public safety funded according to the needs of the study,” Gilbert said, referring to a University of Cincinnati study that found the city’s Police Department is understaffed.
Dodson said she would be in favor of considering renewing the existing Vision tax for economic development and quality-of-life projects with a separate, permanent 0.4 percent tax to fund public safety.
“I think public safety should have its own permanent tax,” she said. “I think they (the public) would gladly pay a little more to sure their safety is taken care of.”
Lakin said it is too early to know what the appropriate funding sources should be because the list of projects to be funded and their costs have not been clearly defined.
The council still doesn’t know how much it will cost to build the low-waters dams or what other economic development projects will be in the final Vision package, Lakin said.
“I can’t do budgets that way,” he said. “I have to know what the real costs are.”
Bynum said his opposition to raising the Vision sales tax rate does not mean he is opposed to funding a public-safety package — he just doesn’t believe it belongs in the Vision package.
“We need to consider a public safety tax that funds our now-identified public safety operating needs on a separate timeline,” Bynum said.
Bynum said that could be done without increasing taxes. He noted that until now the public safety discussion has been based on the funding source rather than identifying the need and then identifying the funding source.
“The whole conversation to date has been backwards,” he said. “… We ought to start with the need, then identify the cost, and only then identify the funding source.”