Tulsa County and Cities: Differences, Similarities

Contributing Editor

The recent turmoil over whether or not the city of Tulsa should annex the Tulsa County Fairgrounds springs from one source: money. According to Tulsa City Council Chairman Bill Martinson, the city’s straits are so dire that much needed services and obligations are not being met.

“In some cases,” says Martinson, “we have cut beyond the fat and are deep into the muscle. We are working on implementing lean processes, but they will take time and will not cover the entire gap.”

Tulsa County residents may groan over a sales tax rate that has reached 8.517 cents on the dollar, but few stop to consider how it is allocated.

According to Martinson, of the 8.517 cents, 4.5 goes directly to the state of Oklahoma. Tulsa County gets a quarter of a cent for jail maintenance and operations, .1676 goes for the Four-to-Fix the County sales tax, and .6-cents is earmarked for Vision 2025. The latter two taxes were approved by Tulsa County voters.
The City of Tulsa gets the same two cents for operations it has gotten since 1971. The final penny goes to the capital improvements paid for by the third penny sales tax.
Tulsa County includes the cities of Tulsa, Broken Arrow, Jenks, Owasso, Collinsville, Catoosa (the portion in Tulsa County), Skiatook, Sand Springs and Bixby.

Over the years the percentages have changed but still, according to figures from the Indian Nation Council of Governments and the Tulsa County Assessors office, about two-thirds of the people living in Tulsa County live within the city limits of Tulsa. Sixty percent of Tulsa County’s urbanized area is within the city of Tulsa.

The City of Tulsa’s budget is about $550 million. Tulsa County’s total budget is about $68.5 million. After deducting revenues earmarked for specific purposes, the city is left with only $232 million, or about 43 percent of the total budget, to use for general operations.

The city is dedicated to providing police and fire protection, ambulance service and 911 emergency management.
It provides clean water, sanitary sewage disposal, flood protection, trash collection and disposal.

It maintains streets and sidewalks, regulates traffic, provides public transit and air transportation and takes a major role in arts and cultural institutions and outdoor activities like parks, swimming pools and the Tulsa Zoo.

Police and fire protection are the biggest items. Between them they take up 56 percent of the general fund.

After deducting earmarked funds, the county’s spendable budget is just over $53 million.

Even here, for budgetary purposes, things can get murky. Tulsa County, for example, pays for the sheriff’s deputies, but if a person works as a jailor for the county he or she is paid by the Criminal Justice Authority which funds the operation of the jail and is a different entity entirely. The city gets most of its general operating revenue money from the 2-cent portion of the 8.5 cent sales tax applicable to Tulsa while the county gets 80 percent of its money, according to county fiscal officer Jim Smith, from ad valorem taxes with most of the remainder coming from documentary stamps, court clerk recording fees and interests on funds.

There are striking differences and similarities between city and county government.

Sometimes there is cooperation as in the Tulsa City-County Health Department and Tulsa City-County Library System. Sometimes there are parallel responsibilities such as the Tulsa Police Department and the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. The two work in close cooperation with each other.

Each has its own court system.

It is the county, not the cities, that evaluates the value of each commercial and residential property for tax purposes. It is the county that holds land records going back to statehood and even beyond. The county has a juvenile detention center and a host of social services it provides.

Each unit is responsible for road maintenance within its jurisdiction.

The city has parks and so does the county. Chandler Park, LaFortune Park, O’Brien Park and Haikey Creek Park in Broken Arrow are all run by the county, even though they may be squarely in a city.

Certain duties are quite different. It is the county, for example, not the city that decides how your house or business location will be appraised for tax purposes.

The county has a juvenile justice bureau. It provides a medical clinic for the poor, a pharmacy where citizens can get pharmaceutical products at hugely discounted prices, emergency food assistance, burial or cremation services and a homeless shelter.

Any documents relating to the purchase or sale of real estate stretching back to statehood can be found at the court clerk’s office.

The county is overseen by the Board of County Commissioners where commissioners from the county’s three districts serve as the administrative and business management entity.

That function, in the city of Tulsa, lies in the hands of Mayor Kathy Taylor, who is in charge of running the day-to-day city operations. The City Council, which is made up of nine district council members, is the legislative body of the City of Tulsa.
The City Council sees the cost crunch of a city that is ever changing yet playing under antiquated financial rules, according to City Council Chairman Bill Martinson, who points out the city is still largely funding its operations with the same two percent sales tax it has since 1971. The third penny sales tax, which Tulsans vote on every five years, goes entirely to capital improvements. In the meantime, costs keep outstripping the increase in tax revenue gained from simple growth and inflation. In the last fiscal year, for example, the cost of providing health insurance to city employees rose 9.5 percent, far beyond the rate of inflation.

The city was hard hit by the loss of 28,000 area jobs in the years from 2000 to 2003 and has only just begun to rebound. The city’s purchasing power, says Martinson, is about the same that it was 10 years ago.

Meanwhile the city by law must balance its budget every year. There can be no deficit spending.

To try to keep in budget, the city has refused to cut emergency services. The number of policemen and firemen remain the same.

But the Park Department has cut its number of full-time equivalent authorized positions by about 17 percent in three years. The Finance Department is down 20 percent. With over 4,200 lane miles of streets, the Public Works Department estimates the city is spending less than half of what it needs to keep the streets at current levels.

The city’s total budget is $545.8 million, but the majority of that money is earmarked for specific purposes. The sliver of ad valorem money the city gets, for example, is legislated into a sinking fund that can only be used to pay off general obligation bonds or settle judgments against the city. No money is left over for trimming trees.

Instead the general fund, which the city uses to pay its bills, is only $232 million.

The city is facing other crunches. At a time when federal funds to municipalities has fallen from 17 percent to five percent of municipal budgets nationwide more stringent federal mandates on such items as the Clean Water Act increase costs. The state is stripping away sales tax dollars. In 1980 there were only six sales tax exemptions that affected a city’s revenues. Now the number has increased to 118 with more being proposed every year. In 1996, with 80 exemptions on the books, the cost of exemptions to municipalities statewide was put at $1.7 billion.

The annexation of the Fairgrounds, all admit, will bring in a miniscule amount of money, variously estimated to be anywhere from a net loss (if security costs are included) to up to $1.1 million. No one considers it a cure-all for the city’s financial woes.

But it could be revenue in an area where any additional revenue is desperately needed.
Therein lies the flap.

Updated 03-26-2007

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