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Oklahoma City, Tulsa mayors would like to see state reform sales tax laws

Mick Cornett and Dewey Bartlett, the mayors of Oklahoma’s two largest cities, say state law forces cities into an over-reliance on sales tax.
by William Crum Modified: July 14, 2014 at 3:00 pm •  Published: July 14, 2014

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.”

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by William Crum
Reporter
OU and Norman High School graduate, formerly worked as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and the Norman Transcript. Married, two children, lives in Norman.
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Excerpts from The Oklahoman’s interview with Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett:

Sales tax

“We have a strong commitment to public safety. It is easily identified as our No. 1 priority and if you can’t maintain your sales tax base or hopefully increase it, you’re not going to be able to put investments in that area. And so there’s no question that where a big-box, destination retailer locates affects the bottom line of the city.”

Retail incentives

“We can sit around and argue the philosophy of that. None of us like to get into the incentive game. To wish it were a different world is fine but at the end of the day it isn’t allowing you to hire more police officers. So we’ve got to get out there and fight and claw and scratch and try and bring in these destination retailers the best we can.”

Downtown

“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

“The urban legislators from both Oklahoma City and Tulsa do not seem to bind together and want to work together on behalf of big, urban cities. And the rural legislators don’t seem to have that problem. I see a lot of times that rural legislators will stick together to try and push rural issues or be aggressive against urban issues. We need to remind the legislators of Tulsa and Oklahoma City that they need to stand up for us as well.”

Tulsa’s budget woes

“They have very aggressive suburbs that are attracting new retail and attracting new citizens and as a result Tulsa is not growing at the rate of the entire metro area. And that’s not in Tulsa’s best interest. You can’t be a suburb of nothing and I hope the Tulsa community can realize that what happens in Tulsa is going to be very important to what happens to the entire region.”

Oklahoma City’s character

“This has been a community that wanted the dollar in the bank before it was spent.”

Looking ahead

“Oklahoma City’s success the last few years doesn’t seem to be some flash in the pan. It seems to be based on something solid and significant. And I still think the next 10 years are going to be better than the last 10, and the last 10 have been pretty amazing.”

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