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.”