Tulsa Mayor Details 2014 Fiscal-Year Budget
By DEWEY F. BARTLETT JR.
Mayor, City of Tulsa
The City of Tulsa has operated on the same two-cent sales tax for more than 30 years. In the last few years, with large downturns in the economy followed by only slight increases, Tulsa’s government is stretching that two cents as far as it will go.
In fact, Tulsa’s total sales tax collection growth has averaged a little more than one percent in the last 12 years. Sales tax revenues fund core services like police, fire, 911, traffic management and parks.
Last month, I presented a budget to the city council that included $17 million in expense reductions to meet our projected revenues. I asked our department heads to present three scenarios to the budget team, which included the finance director, his staff and our senior management.
The biggest question since that time has been, why is Tulsa seeing lower sales tax revenues when other cities are not? The fact is that many cities are experiencing revenue shortfalls and higher expenses. They’re funding the liabilities of their pension programs while public safety costs continue to climb. They too are making adjustments to services and expenses to live within their means.
At the metro level, the suburb cities are enjoying growth: they’ve added new retail outlets within their city limits, and their residents no longer travel to Tulsa for merchandise they can buy in the communities where they live. Meanwhile, more people are finding it’s more convenient to shop online for value and price. If the online store doesn’t have a presence in Oklahoma, it doesn’t collect state or city sales tax, and our city doesn’t receive funding to provide services.
More than 60 percent of the general fund goes to public safety departments, leaving only 40 percent of the budget to be shared by more than 20 departments and agencies. As a result, when the city must reduce expenses after sales tax revenues are less than expected, those cuts are primarily made only to 40 percent of the general fund budget, impacting services like parks and the performing arts.
The budget proposed to the council was the culmination of a year’s worth of meetings, a hiring freeze to save money in the current fiscal year, and department heads taking a hard look at their budgets to make additional reductions. Most every department took a cut, from a small percent to 17 percent, abolishing vacant positions and displacing a few employees in filled positions that would be cut.
During the next few months, you’ll hear me speak about a public safety plan that will work in Tulsa, as it has worked in Oklahoma City and Norman. I’m advocating to the Tulsa City Council to let Tulsa voters decide how public safety should be funded by extending an existing sales tax that will soon expire. The funding, approximately $14 million a year, would be used for police, fire and the 911 Center. If Tulsa would support this public safety plan, we’d have a new source of funds to put more police and fire personnel in the field. We’d also have funding available to provide quality of life services that our citizens expect and deserve.