By Jessica Bruha
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Between the cold weather and the BCS National Championship game, there wasn’t a large community presence at a public meeting Monday to discuss the renewal of the Public Safety Sales Tax, but strong opinions were shared, nevertheless.
City council members told Norman residents at the meeting that they are currently looking at 10-year renewal of the half-cent tax. Many members of the public who spoke not only questioned the temporary tax when there are permanent salaries depending on the money, but also why the tax is being put on a ballot so quickly.
“It is extremely poor public policy to fund permanent positions with temporary sales tax,” Norman resident Ted Metscher said. “What’s gonna happen if this thing doesn’t pass?”
Former city council member Roger Gallagher said he doesn’t know of any city that hires permanent employees with temporary funds.
“It’s only just and it’s proper to make it permanent,” Gallagher said.
The current seven-year PSST funds the salaries of 71 police officer and firefighters.
Metscher suggested that the temporary PSST be scrapped and a permanent general fund tax be brought forth to the citizens of Norman.
“You’ve already included everything but the kitchen sink with this tax,” he said. “We might as well call it a general tax.”
Mayor Cindy Rosenthal said in 2006, a general tax was brought forth and voters rejected it.
Norman firefighter Matt Hart said it’s hard to advocate for a temporary tax when there are permanent employees tied to this tax.
“We’re not getting rich off this tax,” Hart said. “We’re able to get where we need to be (with this tax).”
There are supposed to be a certain number of firefighters and police officers per every thousand, and Hart said they are still behind that number now, even with the additional employees from the current PSST.
Hart also questioned why the tax would be renewed as a 10-year tax versus another seven-year tax.
Rosenthal said the capital needs could not be funded in a seven-year term, so by extending it to 10 years, there would be more time to take care of those needs.
Norman Chamber of Commerce President John Woods said they have had success with the current seven-year sales tax. However, he has several concerns with the 10-year renewal tax.
First, the current tax doesn’t expire until the end of next year, and while he said he doesn’t advocate waiting until the eleventh hour to try to figure something out, there needs to be more time allowed for more public discussion and for more questions to be asked.
Woods said there were six public meetings to decide whether an apartment complex should be allowed on Campus Xorner, but this is the only public meeting the city council has scheduled to discuss a tax that will have lasted a total of 17 years, if the renewal passes.
Furthermore, none of the 71 positions added from the temporary tax have been absorbed.
“We need to shift some of those (positions) off of temporary taxes so police and fire do not have this concern,” Woods said. “We have yet to absorb one position, and I think we should begin to look at that.”
There was also some discussion of making a quarter-cent permanent tax.
However, City Financial Director Anthony Francisco said a quarter cent tax would not be enough. Francisco said it would have to be a 3/8 percent rate to maintain just the 71 added employees salaries for the next seven years, and after seven years, even that would not be enough.
Woods suggested moving the vote to the fall to allow for better education, more public input and more time for vetting and exploring every possible avenue before it goes to voters.
“We need to make sure if we’re moving forward with this, we get a yes vote. If it fails, it effects everything we want to do in this community,” he said. “If we don’t move forward appropriately, it puts a lot in jeopardy with what we want to do with this community.”
Rosenthal said the renewal needs to go to voters sooner rather than later because if it is unsuccessful in April, the city will have a year and a half to figure out what to do to meet the public safety needs.
A list of the critical public safety capital needs that the tax money would go toward if a renewal was passed include the following:
· A replacement radio system, $15 million
· Emergency Operation Center or Dispatch Center, $6.5 million
· Replace fire apparatus, $6.8 million
· Relocate Fire Station 5, $3.5 million
The highest priority on the list is the radio system. Humphrey said the system must be replaced by 2018 and is a critical part of emergency services.
Gallagher said since this radio system is for more than just police, fire and EMSStat, public safety shouldn’t have the entire burden of the replacement. With public works, road crews and sanitation using the radio system as well, they should share some of the burden.
“I’d like to see some discussion about that and some acknowledgment and preparation and (be assured) that other departments in the city that will be using that system will be paying their fair share,” Gallagher said.
With a new radio system, the dispatch center must be moved. It is in the city’s best interest that the center be moved to more effectively serve the public, Francisco said. There needs to be some separation of the dispatch center from the municipal complex in the event of a tornado or some other natural disaster, he said.
Fire Chief James Fullingim said fire apparatus will have to be replaced because many trucks may only have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years, and they have run some trucks for 25 years. The current system is inefficient and unreliable.
The new fire apparatus would include five fire engines and a new ladder truck.
The relocation of Fire Station 5 is needed to better serve the community in relation to response time, Fullingim said. It is currently only one mile west of city limits on the east side of Norman. Also, the fire station, which was built in the late ’70s on a CDGB grant, has since expanded.
Fullingim said there originally only two rooms for two firefighters at the station, but living quarters have tripled since then to try to keep up with additional firefighters.
“It’s too small, and it’s in a bad area,” he said.
In addition to those capital needs, other items were listed for what the tax money would be used for, including:
· Retaining 71 police and fire employees
· Retaining the Rainy Day Fund at the targeted level
· Addition of 13 police officers in a partnership with Norman Public Schools
· Addition of four communication officers or dispatch employees
· Addition of two mechanics
There were a lot of mixed feelings and opinions about the proposal to add 13 police officers to go to Norman Public Schools.
Humphrey said their main focus would be to address issues that arise in the schools, because they have seen an increase in calls for service to the high schools and other schools.
An outline of the school officer resource program was outlined and presented by city council members, as seen below:
· The program’s goal would be to improve school safety and act as a liaison between school communities and police.
· Cost sharing and other factors would be finalized between the city and NPS.
· There would be a two-year phase period.
· There would be one supervising officer.
· There would be two officers at each high school.
· There would be one officer at Dimensions Academy.
· There would be one officer at each middle school.
· Three officers would rotate between the 15 elementary schools.
Gallagher said he doesn’t think Norman needs police in schools. However, if they are going to move forward with the measure, the school systems should pay 50 percent of the cost for additional officers.
“The school should bear the burden,” Gallagher said. “We’ll see a lot of public outrage if the school system does not put in.”
His wife, Ann Gallagher, disagreed. After being in the school system for 36 years, she said schools have dramatically changed over that period of time.
“We need the positive role models in our schools,” she said. “I would love to see the police involved in school systems.”
Retired police officer Steve Lucas said while he is really proud of the PSST, what happens if the schools want to back out? The police won’t back out, they will be there permanently, whether the school keeps paying them or not, Lucas said.
If the 10-year sales tax were passed, it would be effective Oct. 1, 2015, through Sept. 30, 2025. It is estimated that it would generate $11 million in the first year and $16 million in the 10th year, Francisco said.
If the renewal is put on the April election ballot, the first reading would need to be done by Jan. 14.
Gallagher said putting it on a ballot sooner rather than later seems like a rush job.
“If it’s a quality package, people will accept it. Let’s hope we have more time, so we can delve into these areas and get answers. It’s our money, folks,” he said.
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