Council Looks Set to Move Ahead on Public Safety Tax "Lockbox"

Aug 9, 2017

Credit City of Tulsa

A Tulsa city councilor has the support of a majority of her colleagues for a plan to put Vision's public safety tax revenue in a legal lockbox.

Councilor Karen Gilbert wants voters to approve a charter change saying that revenue is off-limits for annual budget building. An ordinance that can be changed by a council and mayor currently governs the revenue.

Gilbert said voters in 2016 wanted a public safety tax that would pay for an additional 160 cops and 65 firefighters, and future voters should be the ones to make changes to the tax.

"The voters approved to have this money locked in. So, If any future mayor, future council thinks that this money isn't needed anymore — needs to be diverted into other areas — since the voters approved it, then I do believe we owe it to the voters in order to change that purpose of those funds," Gilbert said.

The proposed charter amendment first came to the council last week. Some councilors had reservations because it included historic general fund floors and ceilings for police and fire spending. They were intended to give guidance to future administrations, but city attorneys said they would lock in percentages of any new general fund revenue for public safety.

The funding floors and ceilings have since been taken out, and six councilors in addition to Gilbert expressed at least some support for her proposal Wednesday.

Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper did not speak during discussion of the proposed charter amendment at a committee meeting. Councilor Connie Dodson was absent.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Mark Swiney maintained taking future revenue off the table could pose a problem.

"We are concerned that future mayors and future councils, in trying to form budgets — and the city charter requires them to create a new budget every year — that their hands are going to be tied by not having the freedom to divert funds to other purposes when that's necessary to do," Swiney said.

Swiney said technological advances that change staffing needs or mayors adding or eliminating departments can be scenarios that call for budget flexibility.

A concern raised by Councilors Blake Ewing and Ben Kimbro was future mayors and councils who want to take funding away from public safety will do it through the general fund, not by reallocating what will eventually be a 0.26 percent sales tax.

Ewing noted the City of Norman locked in public safety funding as percentage of its total budget. Gilbert said doing that would handcuff future mayors and councils, but protecting the public safety tax wouldn't because it's a substantially smaller portion.

Along with the backing of a majority of councilors, Gilbert's proposal has the attention of the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police. Chairman Jerad Lindsey attended Wednesday's committee meeting.

Lindsey said it's rare for the FOP to support a tax measure, but the public safety tax is different.

"We believe that it was reported very clearly to the public that this would be solely for public safety funding, and we're in support of anything that would keep with the spirit and the promises made to the voters," Lindsey said.

The council must send a ballot measure to the election board by Aug. 30 for a November vote.