Not one vote has been cast on the city of Tulsa’s proposed permanent public safety tax, and already the issue is showing signs of straining relations between the police union and the Mayor’s Office.
Clay Ballenger, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said Monday that the city needs to put the revenue from the new sales tax in a “lock box” until the Police Department reaches its authorized strength of 783 officers, or 61 percent of the city’s general fund is permanently obligated to public safety.
“I guarantee you, their (the Mayor’s Office’s) plan is when they start getting that new tax, they are going to use it to get us back up to strength, and that is not the way it’s been sold to the public,” Ballenger said. “If that’s the case, they could cut us by 100 officers, and that new tax is really only going to fund 60 new officers, instead of 160.”
Ballenger added that if the city were to use the permanent public safety tax to hire the 25 officers needed to get the force to its authorized strength, the union would consider seeking to have some of the permanent tax used to pay for future pay increases for those 25 officers.
“They can’t have it both ways: You can’t say, well, it’s not for pay increases for anybody below 783, and at the same time use that money to hire people below 783,” Ballenger said.
City Manager Jim Twombly said the Mayor’s Office has no disagreement with Ballenger or the union regarding the use of general fund revenue for police operations. He said the city plans to move forward with a police academy in April that would add 20 officers, boasting the number of sworn officers in the Police Department to 778.
While the goal may be 783, Twombly said, the fact that attrition rates and sales tax collections vary from year to year makes it impossible to absolutely ensure that 783 officers would be funded out of the general fund every year.
“Everybody has got to understand and agree that it is not going to be a constant 783 out of the general fund,” Twombly said.
Revenue from the permanent public safety sales tax, meanwhile, will be dedicated to hiring 160 officers in addition to those officers hired and paid out of the general fund, Twombly said.
Asked how the public can be sure the city will maintain existing funding levels for the police department out of the general fund, Twombly said Mayor Dewey Bartlett plans to follow the ordinance that spells out how the new sales tax would be used.
“That ordinance, the Brown ordinance, really states the city’s policy,” Twombly said. “The specific purpose of the money is to add officers to the force.
“It lays out what we’re doing currently with funding and says we we will maintain that, and so we will maintain where we are.”
As for Ballenger’s “lock box” idea, Twombly said it is not a practical, nor would it be well received by the public.
“Frankly, how is the mayor going to deal with the public when we have a public safety tax that has been approved and he is sitting on the money until we have 783 officers? That would be irresponsible,” Twombly said. “I don’t know where anyone comes up with these kinds of schemes.”
Ballenger’s remarks came just three weeks before Tulsans go to the polls to vote on the $844.6 million Vision Tulsa sales tax package. The proposal includes a permanent sales tax for public safety that would provide $272 million for the city’s Police, Fire and 911 departments over the first 15 years.
The permanent public safety tax would be a separate, additional funding source for the Police and Fire departments in addition to the revenue they receive from the general fund.
The $202 million allocated for police would pay for 160 additional officers. It sounds simple, but city councilors and the Mayor’s Office struggled for months to come up with an ordinance that would make clear that the 160 officers would be additions to the police force and not replacements for officers that might retire or leave the department.
That task was made difficult by the fact that the City Council cannot obligate future administrations or councils to fund a certain number of police officers, or to fund the police department at a certain level.
The council settled on including a chart in the ordinance that shows the percentages of the general fund that have gone to the Police and Fire departments each of the last five fiscal years. The figures are intended as a guide to ensure that future mayors or City Councils fund the departments at current or historical levels without requiring them to do so.
“It is not the intent of this tax to supplant such (general fund) public safety funding,” the ordinance states.
This fiscal year, which ends June 30, the city has allocated a total of 59 percent of the city’s general fund budget went to the Police and Fire departments and the 911 center.
Complicating the issue is the city’s ongoing struggle to balance its general fund budget. City officials recently estimated this year’s budget shortfall to be $8.5 million, with the chance that it could increase before June 30. In response, Bartlett has asked department heads — including the Police and Fire chiefs — to submit plans for reducing their budgets by 5 percent or 10 percent this fiscal year and next next fiscal year.
Twombly indicated Tuesday that he did not expect that sworn police officers would be part of the cuts.
“We are not impacting sworn positions,” Twombly said.
The city’s current budget situation is exactly the type of scenario that has worried Ballenger, who said he’s afraid that when times get tough, the city will dip into the permanent public safety tax — rather than the general fund — to maintain police manpower levels.
“If they just continue cutting the police budget, all they’re doing is using that new tax for what should be current (expenditures), and then, guess what?,” Ballenger said. “That frees up money for other departments that was — or should have — been going to police or fire.
“Basically, it’s an attempt to use that new (tax) for current operations for other departments besides public safety.”
Twombly insists that will not happen and suggested Ballenger is looking for trouble where none exists.
“Even if we tried that, we know that Clay Ballenger would be there saying, ‘Hey, hold on a minute;’ there would be a huge outcry,” Twombly said. “I just think it is sort of borrowing trouble worrying about about stuff that is not worth worrying about.”
The Vision Tulsa package would extend 0.55 percent of the existing 0.60 percent Vision sales tax. In addition to the public safety funding, the package includes $102 million for transit and $510.6 million for economic development.
The discussion over how the public safety tax should be implemented — and its effect on the general fund — likely won’t go away after the election.
Even if voters approve the permanent public safety tax on April 5, it is possible the City Council could ask Tulsans to vote on a change to the city charter that would require the city to do exactly what Ballenger is asking for: to fund 783 officers out of the general fund, or allocate 61 percent of the general fund for public safety.
Bartlett has said previously that he does not support a charter change because it would tie the hands of future administrations and City Councils.