A public safety task force is starting to search for dedicated funding to cover the costs of more cops, more firefighters, and street maintenance and safety improvements in Tulsa.
"Public safety always has been on the top of all priority lists for the council, for me and for the citizens who voice their opinions through any form and all forms of communication," said Mayor Dewey Bartlett during his state of the city address. "That’s what they all say: Support public safety."
Bartlett said his proposal for funding public safety will be a baseline for the newly established task force. We already knew it involved extending part of the expiring Vision2025 sales tax, but all the details hadn’t come out until this week’s state of the city address.
Before that, however, a quick review of how the city got to this point: A recession in 2001, another recession in 2008 and slow growth in sales tax revenue — just $50 million over the last 13 years.
"Eighty-four percent of that was used to pay for public safety: Our police and fire departments. Everybody else … 23 departments — only received 16 percent of that $50 million growth," Bartlett said.
Overall, 61 cents of every general fund dollar goes toward public safety. Then, just a few months ago, city leaders had to make $17 million in budget cuts without significantly affecting police and fire.
"So when we started making the cuts, they had to be made within the nonsworn departments to balance the budget," Bartlett said. "They continue to maintain services as best they can today with fewer people to handle the work. But they can’t do this forever."
That’s where the idea to extend two-tenths of the one-cent Vision2025 sales tax comes in.
"The funding would generate $14 million on an annual basis for the City of Tulsa alone," Bartlett said. "It would not replace — would not replace — the amount of money that we’re presently spending out of the general fund, but it will supplement it and relieve pressure on the other department budgets that have borne the brunt of cost cutting."
That money would be kept separate from the general fund in an account reserved solely for public safety. Bartlett estimates it would pay for 70 new cops and 34 new firefighters.
"This is how we can take better control of our budgetary problems," Bartlett said. "This is how we can finally open a new fire station in east Tulsa. This is how we can form crime-fighting task forces without pulling officers away from their primary job, as we have to do more than periodically.
"This is how we can avoid significant overtime costs. This is how we can provide much-improved maintenance of our city streets."
Tulsa wouldn’t be the first city in Oklahoma to have a public safety tax, nor would it have the highest. Oklahoma City’s is three-quarters of a cent, Norman’s one-half and Edmond’s three-eighths. Each currently has a higher sales-tax rate than Tulsa.
Bartlett wrapped up his proposal by saying two-tenths of a cent will pay for more than manpower.
"My proposal includes things such as new and additional lighting of our streets and in our neighborhoods; new striping of our streets; full-time, year-round maintenance of our streets — the things that make our streets safer and last longer," Bartlett said.
Bartlett is due to formally present his proposal to the public safety task force Oct. 23. The task force is anticipated to meet five more times this year.