Imagine if just 350 people living downtown could determine, via mailed-in ballots, whether to increase sales and property taxes to pay for a dream improvement like an enhanced streetcar system that would extend into the NW 16 Plaza District and the Oklahoma Health Center.
Such was the case just last month when voters in downtown Kansas City voted 351 to 198 for a one-cent sales tax increase and 344 to 206 to increase property taxes to pay for a $100 million, two-mile streetcar system.
The vote wasn't without controversy; only residents living in the downtown boundaries of the special tax election were eligible to vote. That left owners of large expensive office and retail developments subject to much of the bill, but unable to weigh in unless they too lived in downtown Kansas City.
Downtown Oklahoma City is already set to build and operate a $130 million, six-mile streetcar system as part of MAPS 3, which was funded through a penny sales tax approved through a citywide election.
But could a downtown Kansas City style ballot be sought to add to the Oklahoma City streetcar system in later years? Could such a ballot be used for other dream capital improvement projects for the urban core?
I do not know of anyone locally contemplating such an effort, but I did reach out to two people well versed in the world of public/private project financing: the city's economic development coordinator, Brent Bryant, and Cathy O'Connor, president of The Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City.
The short answer is “no.”
It's not that Oklahoma City hasn't developed a reputation of being innovative in the world of project financing. The complicated mix of tax credits, brownfields grants, tax increment financing and a long-term ground lease were all applauded by observers of the deal that brought the long-vacant Skirvin Hotel back to life in 2007.
Similar efforts turned a toxic piece of land along the Oklahoma River in one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods into a Dell computers service center that still employs hundreds.
Special assessment districts, meanwhile, were used for a long overdue renovation of downtown's underground pedestrian tunnels, as well as funding for the downtown business improvement district.
But Oklahoma City, while seen as being innovative in such efforts, also has been comparatively conservative in its interpretation of how such assessment districts and public financing can be employed.
Consider that while Tulsa used its downtown business improvement district to pay for much of the $39 million construction cost of ONEOK Field ballpark, Oklahoma City officials are reluctant to use business improvement districts to pay for any major capital projects. Good luck getting the municipal counselor's office in Oklahoma City to sign off on using a district to even pay for a hot dog stand, not to mention a ballpark.
Don't be surprised, however, if a new special assessment district isn't at least considered for helping pay for operations of the future downtown streetcar system. As with most of the MAPS 3 projects, no funding plan was established for the streetcar system once it is built. But even then, such a vote will involve a petition of all of downtown's property owners — and not a mail-in ballot for residents as done in Kansas City.