By KEVIN CANFIELD
The Arkansas River Infrastructure Task Force has suspended its regular meetings to give a subcommittee time to evaluate public comments the task force received at its recent town hall meetings.
Meanwhile, in interiews with The Frontier Tuesday, Sand Springs Mayor Mike Burdge, said his city may not be included in a final proposal to build low-water dams in the Arkansas River, and Tulsa City Councilor Anna America said she would like to see the overall proposal scaled back.
City Councilor and Task Force Chairman G.T. Bynum informed area leaders in an email Monday the meetings were being halted.
“Moving ahead, we are suspending meetings of the task force while our drafting team assembles a proposal that responds to concerns raised in town hall meetings,” the email states. “When that revised proposal is ready, we will call another meeting to present it to the full task force and get your feedback.”
Bynum told The Frontier in an interview that “major issues raised and on the table for discussion largely come down to the disparity within the draft plan between what Tulsans pay and what they get in return.”
Asked whether the proposal could be scaled back to exclude some suburban communities, Bynum said: “Anything and everything is up for discussion.”
Councilor Phil Lakin said the same thing in an interview Tuesday.
“Everything is on the table because we don’t have a proposal yet to put out there,” Lakin said. “We just had a plan we discussed that had four dams.”
Bynum stressed at the public meetings that the plan presented to the public was not a finished product and that the public’s input would be used to come up with a final proposal.
He reiterated that point Tuesday, adding that each river community is represented on the drafting team.
“That was the whole point of the town hall meetings,” he said. “They weren’t intended as a pep rally, they were intended as a chance for Tulsans to let us know what they think so we could revise the proposal accordingly.”
America said she’s heard strong support for scaling back the proposal.
“What I am hearing loud and clear from Tulsans in my district — and in much of the rest of the city — is that they don’t necessarily oppose four dams, they just don’t want Tulsans to pay for dams in other communities, and I agree with that.
“My preference would be that Tulsans get to vote on a scaled-back package that focuses on things within our city limits. That means all necessary levy repairs and improvements on the Zink Dam to build on our greatest river asset.”
America said she could potentially see a south Tulsa-Jenks dam included in the proposal if the cost were shared proportionally by those who would benefit from it.
Jenks’ Mayor Kelly Dunkerly said the process is proceedings as it was intended, with each river community involved in coming up with a final proposal.
“I think the main thing is the proposal is still under development,” he said. “Everyone has had their input and no final decisions have been made, but there have been discussions about the merit” of each dam location.
Dunkerly said the public input has had the desired effect of providing task force members and policy makers with the information they need to make the best decisions possible.
“We have all been trying to understand the different options,” he said.
Bynum said a possible Sand Springs dam remains integral from a water-quality standpoint. However, the task force learned during the public meetings process that the Sand Springs dam would not provide as much water between the Tulsa dam lakes as anticipated.
“That weighs on the valuation of that dam from the standpoint of its benefit to Tulsans,” Bynum said.
Burdge said he has heard from colleagues in Sand Springs the city may be left out of the package.
“If Tulsa makes that decision, that is their decision to make,” Burdge said. “We will revamp what we are doing. That is no problem; we’ll just catch another train.”
In Bixby, City Manager Doug Enelvoldsen said his city remains committed to building four dams in the river.
Enelvoldsen sits on the drafting team.
“We believe that the Arkansas River is our region’s greatest natural asset,” he said. “And the creation of these series of lakes will stimulate private-sector development, improve recreational opportunities and enhances quality of life throughout the Tulsa metropolitan region.”
County Commissioner Karen Keith said she has always been in favor of doing a full package with dams, amenities and shoreline development.
However, after attending the town hall meetings, “I understand councilors’ reluctance,” she said. “I understand where G.T. is coming from.”
She added: “Perhaps this is a first step to moving forward with something that would work for the suburbs later.”
The river task force has spent more than a year and a half formulating a plan to build low-water dams in the Arkansas River. The group is made up of representatives of Tulsa County, the Creek Nation, private industry, the cities of Tulsa, Sand Springs, Jenks, Bixby and others.
The proposal presented to the public at town hall meetings in May and June called for spending $298 million to build dams in Sand Springs, south Tulsa/Jenks and Bixby and to overhaul Zink Dam in Tulsa.
The proposal offered a new twist Bynum and other advocates for the dams said made it different than earlier proposals: Only communities that would benefit directly from the dams would be asked to pay for them.
Those communities would be Sand Springs, Tulsa, Jenks and Bixby. Funding would come from a Vision 2025 sales tax renewal. The sixth-tenths of a penny sales tax expires at the end of 2016.
Under the proposal, the four communities would dedicate half of the renewal, or three-tenths of a penny, to build, operate and maintain the dams.
However, during the town hall meetings, several speakers questioned whether Tulsans would essentially be paying to build other communities’ dams because of the Tulsa’s much larger population.
Others asked whether the task force had done a cost-benefit analysis to determine how much private-sector investment the dams might generate.
The suspension of the meetings could throw a wrench into the overall Vision renewal process.
Independent of the dam discussions, the city of Tulsa is holding public meetings to hear how Tulsans would like to spend the remainder of the Vision tax should they choose to renew it. Sand Springs, Jenks and Bixby are holding or plan to hold similar meetings.
Until recently, Bynum and other officials had indicated that the Vision renewal vote could take place as early as the fall. That now seems unlikely.
Near the end of his email, Bynum writes there is a good reason no dam proposal has been approved in 50 years.
“It’s complicated,” he wrote.
Monday, it seems, the proposal became even more so.