City Councilor Karen Gilbert said Wednesday she wants Tulsans to vote this year on a change to the city’s charter that would set in place minimum funding levels for the Police and Fire departments.
“It could come as early as June with primary votes,” Gilbert said.
The city’s nonpartisan municipal election primary is scheduled for June 28.
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 $844 million Vision Tulsa proposal residents will vote on April 5 includes a separate, permanent public safety tax that would be used to hire and equip 160 police officers and 65 firefighters, above and beyond the current staffing levels.
Councilors have struggled to come up with a way to ensure that police officers and firefighters hired with Vision sales tax revenue would actually increase the ranks rather than replace existing officers as they leave their departments.
“We have seen this, unfortunately, with the (state) lottery,” Gilbert said. “The intention of the lottery was to help better fund education, but as the years went on the funding for common education slowly declined.
“So rather than the money going for new operations, it went for current operations.”
To prevent the same thing from happening with the public safety sales tax, Gilbert initially suggested that the City Council require future administrations and City Councils to fund a specific number of police officers and firefighters each year out of the city’s general fund.
That way, Gilbert has said, the city would know what it was adding to.
The idea never took hold because the City Attorney’s office notified councilors they could not obligate future city councils or administrations to specific expenditures.
However, residents of Tulsa can, and that is what Gilbert is proposing they do with the charter change.
“That sets it (public safety funding) in stone,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert did not suggest what percentage of the general fund budget the Police and Fire departments should receive, but in recent years the figure has been approximately 60 percent.
Gilbert’s proposal for a charter change vote comes the day before councilors are to consider and vote on three ordinances spelling out the specifics of the three separate sales taxes that make up the Vision Tulsa proposal.
Since the charter change cannot be voted on until after the Vision election, councilors will consider including in the public safety sales tax ordinance a chart that shows what percentages of the general fund the city has allocated for police and firefighters over the past 10 years.
The chart is “for informational purposes only (not to bind future mayors or councils),” according to the proposed ordinance.
Clay Ballenger, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said Thursday he could support using the spending chart as a baseline for future public safety spending as long as it locks in future administrations and City Councils to those amounts.
He noted that the Police Department is authorized to have 783 officers but currently as only 760.
“The voters must absolutely understand that the tax will add new officers, not be used to bridge the current gap in funding,” Ballenger said.
In an email to city councilors, Ballenger said the FOP would have difficulty supporting the public safety tax portion of the Vision Tulsa package if it is not set in stone that the tax be used to hire new officers.
“If the funding isn’t absolutely, in the law, protected from being used for “current” operations, it would be very difficult for the FOP to support the Public Safety portion of Vision,” Ballenger wrote.
Ballenger said he would also be in favor of putting the charter change before voters.
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.
According to the ordinance, the public safety sales tax could be used only for the following purposes:
- Tulsa Police Department: new/additional personnel, and equipment for said personnel; new/additional equipment for law enforcement purposes; and possible contract services.
- Tulsa Fire Department: new/additional personnel, and equipment for said personnel; new/additional firefighting and rescue equipment; and construction of new fire stations and/or renovation of existing fire stations.
- Other functions, including the 911 Call Center: new/additional personnel, maintenance, equipment and supplies.
The city would establish a separate account into which the public safety sales tax dollars would be deposited.
The proposed ordinances, known as a Brown Ordinances, also spell out the procedure for changing the sales tax process.
If future city councils or administrations wanted to change the sales tax proposal — to fund projects not specified originally, for example — they would have to go through a lengthy process that would include public meetings.