Talks on a new Vision 2025 package took a sharp and unexpected turn Thursday, with City Councilor Karen Gilbert proposing that the city look into finding an alternate funding source for public safety.
Gilbert made her suggestion after City Engineer Paul Zachary presented an analysis showing that the city’s proposed Vision 2025 renewal package would leave Tulsa without funding for major street rehabilitation projects and other capital improvements from fiscal years 2020 through 2023.
The city’s Vision proposal includes $320 million for public safety, $60 million for transit, $177 million for dams and other infrastructure in the Arkansas River, and the remainder for economic development projects.
“If there is another option that we could possibly use to fund public safety, which we also know is a need in the city, then let’s hold off and cool our jets a little bit and see what other options are out there,” Gilbert said.
Approximately $135 million a year in funding for capital improvements would be lost from fiscal years 2020 to 2023 if the existing Vision proposal went into effect, Zachary told councilors.
Other capital improvements that would be cut or reduced in those years include replacement of guardrails, maintenance of Police and Fire department facilities and construction of sidewalks, according to Zachary’s report.
The cuts and reductions would be necessary because the $1.1 billion Vision package being considered by city leaders calls for capturing the Improve Our Tulsa revenue stream once it expires and using it to pay for Vision projects.
The existing countywide Vision 2025 program is funded through a 0.6 percent sales tax. Area municipalities announced last year they were going to disband the countywide Vision program and come up with their own renewal packages.
The city’s plan calls for renewing 0.55 percent of the 0.6 percent Vision sales tax within the city of Tulsa. Funding for public safety (0.2 percent) and transit (0.5 percent) would be permanent taxes, with the remaining 0.3 percent a 15-year tax.
In addition, nearly all of the Improve Our Tulsa sales tax — commonly known as the third-penny sales tax — would be extended for two years no later than July 2021. The Improve Our Tulsa general obligation bonds would be extended three years, beginning in 2020.
Zachary told councilors that capturing Improve Our Tulsa revenue after the package expires and diverting it to the Vision renewal package would lower the the city’s Pavement Condition Index, which measures the condition of the streets.
Reallocating that funding would result in the score for arterial streets dropping from 68 in 2021 to 60 in 2025. The score for non-arterial streets would drop from 65 in 2019 to 57 in 2025, according to Zachary’s analysis.
The city’s stated goal when proposing the $918 million Improve Our Tulsa package was to get the Pavement Condition Index for arterial and non-arterial to 64 by 2019, Zachary said.
When asked after the meeting how much money it would take to keep the city’s scores at the level they are projected to be when the Improve Our Tulsa sales tax and bond programs end, Zachary estimated $344 million.
That number includes millions of dollars for other essential capital improvement projects, such as matching funds for federal grants, that the city needs to continue funding, Zachary said.
Complicating matters further is the city’s effort to come up with nearly $44 million for Expo Square and a entrepreneurial center for manufacturers.
In all, the city could be looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts in the Vision proposal if another funding proposal can’t be worked out.
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 93 President Clay Ballenger said he’s confident the City Council and Mayor Dewey Bartlett will come up with a way to fund the city’s public safety needs.
“It doesn’t matter where the money comes from,” Ballenger said. “It just matters that we can keep this city safe, and we know what we need to do.”
Bartlett said he would not support any reconfiguration of the Vision proposal that results in a tax increase.
“I think a tax increase is a death sentence for the (Vision) concept,” Bartlett said.
Gilbert said that as far as she is concerned, everything is on the table when it comes to funding public safety — including a tax increase.
“I think we owe it to the citizens to do what we can to make sure we’re doing this properly,” she said.
City Councilor Blake Ewing may have done the best job of anyone at Thursday’s day-long meeting in describing the predicament the city finds itself in.
“I think there is a general sense in the public that Vision was for big new ideas, third penny was for maintenance and upkeep, the general fund was for year-to-year maintenance and operations.
“Because there hasn’t been a political will to increase the revenue at any point with a tax increase, we’ve shuffled things that might have been in operations — from what I’m hearing today — into third penny and general obligation bonds. We have shuffled things that … might have been in general obligation bonds into Vision.
“And then, instead of using Vision for the big, fancy stuff, we are lopping off part of Vision to take care of operations. Do we see the vicious cycle?”
Councilors voted to continue Thursday’s meeting until 5 p.m. Tuesday. The meeting will take place in the City Council chambers. Councilors also plan to call for a separate special meeting at 7 p.m. the same day to address any other matters that not addressed on Thursday’s agenda.