For Mayor Mick Cornett, tax reform means safer neighborhoods.
Cornett and Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett are beginning a campaign for changes in state law to reduce cities’ reliance on sales taxes, a sometimes volatile revenue source that can pit city against suburb in battles over big-box retailers such as Walmart.
The scenario played out this summer in Oklahoma City, as the city council promised outdoor retailer Cabela’s $3.5 million in taxpayer-funded incentives to open a showroom on the northwest side.
Deidre Ebrey, director of economic development and marketing in Moore, told a radio interviewer she probably would have offered Cabela’s more.
Cornett and Bartlett hope to enlist other mayors to advocate for a more balanced tax system that can smooth out the kind of ups-and-downs affecting Tulsa, where sales taxes have missed projections, leading to a budget shortfall.
The mayors say diversifying the tax base is all about maintaining high-priority services.
And assuring public safety is Oklahoma City’s No. 1 priority.
“What it really comes down to is police officers and firefighters,” Cornett said last week in an interview with The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma City relies on sales taxes for more than half of its day-to-day operating budget, two-thirds of which goes to public safety.
Retail accounts for more than half of sales tax revenue, setting up the battle for stores such as Lowe’s, Walmart and Cabela’s.
The story is the same for cities large and small, Cornett said.
“Literally, in a smaller town in Oklahoma, getting a Walmart might be the difference between being a surviving community and not being a surviving community,” Cornett said. “And it shouldn’t be that way.”
Cities battle, taxpayers sacrifice and retailers play neighbor against neighbor, he said.
Moore’s Mayor Glenn Lewis “has done an incredible job of attracting retail along that I-35 corridor,” Cornett said. “And it doesn’t take too much to see in Oklahoma City the I-240 corridor has suffered from it and Crossroads Mall is not what it once was.”
The hit to the sales tax base is among the reasons Oklahoma City has worked to land outlet stores on the west side and to invest in Quail Springs Mall on the north side, he said.
“And we’re trying to figure out how we can re-invent that I-240 corridor,” Cornett said, “because sales tax is going to be important if we intend to continue to add police officers.”
Cornett said he and Bartlett are hoping to “remind the state Legislature of the fix they put us in.”
“The first step is just getting the state legislators to understand it, especially the newer ones who might be coming in and not be so well-versed on municipal government,” Cornett said.
Bartlett told the Tulsa World he would most likely seek a way to amplify property taxes’ place in cities’ mix of revenue sources. Bartlett said he was looking at a task force representing communities of varying sizes, with the Oklahoma Municipal League overseeing meetings.
“Neither one of us are trying to increase the amount of taxes that are levied on our citizens,” Cornett said, “but what we are trying to do is just get a more diversified stream of funding coming in.”
“We’ve been fortunate, since I’ve been around City Hall, we’ve been in a general pattern of growth,” Cornett said. “If you’re a smaller town or community and you go through a sales tax dip there’s no question you’re going to have to start removing people from your payrolls, and typically that means police and fire.”
Excerpts from The Oklahoman’s interview with Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett:
“We’re seeing about a thousand housing units a year come into downtown, which is a great trend. It’s creating more efficiency, it’s creating more density.”
The 21st century city
“It’s setting up the infrastructure so the private sector can be successful and create jobs. So that means, is your city wired? Are people able to get the technology capacity they need? Are they able to work with city government or are they working against city government?”
Assessing the Legislature
Tulsa’s budget woes
Oklahoma City’s character
“This has been a community that wanted the dollar in the bank before it was spent.”