NORMAN — A seven-year, half-cent sales tax dedicated to public safety needs will expire in 2015, prompting city officials to begin talking about an election to renew the tax. For now, a debate centers on whether to make it a 10-year tax or possibly even a permanent tax.
The tax initiated after voter approval in 2008 has funded construction of two fire stations and the hiring of 41 police officers and 30 firefighters.
Failure to renew the tax would put the police and firefighter positions in jeopardy and would mean no new revenue to fund needed public safety improvements such as replacement of an outdated radio system, said Mayor Cindy Rosenthal.
Rosenthal wants an election in April so that city officials would have a year and a half leeway before the seven-year tax expires. If a vote fails, she said, officials would need that time to figure out other funding options to retain personnel and meet public safety needs.
The mayor is among those who favor extending the tax for 10 years. A permanent tax is more likely to fail, she said.
A vote to extend the tax was discussed at a public meeting this week.
Chamber of Commerce President John Woods said he thinks a vote should be postponed until fall to allow more time for the public to weigh in on the issue and get educated as to why the city needs it.
“We need to make sure if we're moving forward with this, we get a ‘yes' vote. If it fails, it affects everything we want to do in this community,” Woods said.
Former councilman Roger Gallagher said the tax should be made permanent to protect the positions created by the seven-year tax.
“I don't know of any city that hires permanent employees with temporary funds,” he said.
Police Chief Keith Humphrey said public safety dollars could pay for replacing an outdated communications system and a dispatch center to house the system. Money also is needed to fund school-based police officers, he said.
Fire Chief Jim Fullingim said funds are needed to build a new Fire Station No. 5 at 1000 168th Ave. NE in Little Axe. The station is too small and could be better located to meet public safety needs of rural east Norman, he said. About $6.8 million worth of fire equipment also is due for replacement, Fullingim said.
If a 10-year, half-cent sales tax were approved by voters, it would become effective Oct. 1, 2015, and extend through Sept. 30, 2025, Finance Director Anthony Francisco said.
He estimated the tax would generate $11 million in the first year and $16 million annually by the 10th year.