NORMAN — The Norman Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum put strong emphasis on sales tax income for the city, though candidates were split on the issue and the majority said Norman does not have a long-term sales tax problem.
“I understand why the Chamber emphasizes it. I think sales tax is tremendously important,” Ward 5 candidate Lynne Miller said.
Miller said she appreciates the presentation Chamber Board President Trey Bates made at her Rotary club because Bates showed the consistent growth of Norman’s sales tax over the past 12 years.
“Our growth has been gradual, so we can handle it and we can add the services as we go,” Miller said.
“We can always have more sales tax revenue, but how are we going to do it?” Ward 1 candidate Greg Heiple said. “You have to have a vision ... The vision is what we need to lead forward. If we get the vision right, the tax revenue will come.”
Mayoral candidate Tom Sherman said he researched Oklahoma Tax Commission records and Norman doesn’t have the same “market share” it once had.
“We can’t continue that kind of decline in our market share,” Sherman said.
Echoing a message Council member Robert Castleberry delivered recently at a city finance meeting, Sherman said using the fund balance to have a balanced budget is not a good practice.
“If we do that much longer, we’re going to end up upside-down,” Sherman said.
“I’m reminded of the fact, and I’d like to remind Mr. Sherman, we’ve come through the worst economic downturn in most of our lives,” Rosenthal said. “During that downturn, did we borrow from our fund balance? Yes. At the same time that we were doing that, we started a rainy day fund.”
Rosenthal said the city also has started an “above-the-line emergency fund” to help when unexpected expenses come along like the tornadoes that went through the city last year on April 13. Despite the extensive damage to city property, Norman did not qualify for federal dollars.
Rosenthal said Norman has the largest tax base and has had in Cleveland County for 35 years.
“I think it’s important to look at the long term and, from there, it’s healthy,” she said.
Rosenthal said Norman is collecting sales tax more per capita than Moore, but she is happy Moore is doing well also because, as Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said recently, we live in a regional economy.
“I think that Norman has a very bright future regarding sales tax,” Rosenthal said.
However, she expressed concerns about internet sales undercutting local business and not paying sales tax.
“There’s no quick answer, but if all of us spend a little more time shopping in Norman, it will improve,” Ward 7 Council member Linda Lockett said.
Lockett said we need to be friendly to visitors who come here to shop and that for business owners, customer service is key.
As a longtime small business owner, Lockett said she knows what it takes to succeed and she supports the city becoming more business friendly.
“I don’t think we have a long-term problem, but I do think we have to be concerned about it,” Ward 7 candidate Stephen Holman said.
He said sales tax is volatile and relying on what people buy is not a good source of revenue.
Because Oklahoma’s economy is based on sales tax, however, Holman said we need vibrant businesses that pay good salaries because people will spend money when they are economically secure.
“The greatest risk year by year is keeping the city in the black and having enough money for essential services like police and fire,” Ward 1 Council member Roger Gallagher said.
Gallagher said Norman needs additional commercial businesses in Ward 1.
Sherman said Norman needs to be more business friendly.
“We have got to find a way to entice businesses to come to Norman, and I’m not talking about giving away tax benefits or anything like that,” Sherman said.
Ward 5 Council member Dave Spaulding also is concerned about sales tax revenue and becoming more business friendly.
“Anyone who’s not concerned about the money coming into your pocket will soon find it empty,” Spaulding said.
He referenced 60 city inspections for a local company that wanted to move from one side of the community to another and said Norman can and should do better.
Sherman said we can use incentives but don’t have to use them to attract business.
“We’ve got to change that culture at city hall,” Sherman said. “We need to make Norman customer friendly.”
“Norman has welcomed a number of businesses to this community in the last five years,” Rosenthal said
Mayoral candidate David Kempf said big government is the problem.
“Get the government out of your business ... We don’t need large government dictating to us what kind of city we should have,” Kempf said. “I think the primary duty of government is to provide central services and then get out of the way and let the city grow.”
Most memorable quotes: “Water comes from God,” Kempf said. “If we can’t provide the water that is required for continued growth, people are going to build their houses where there is water ... If the water’s not there, you’re going to have to conserve. Sorry, you can’t water you lawn.”
“There is always a spending problem when you frame the word ‘government’ in any conversation,” Kempf said.
“I was born deaf and I understand what it’s like to not be heard,” Heiple said. He said the government is not listening.
“I look at the economy as a simple factor. If you have enough money, you spend. If you don’t, you don’t spend. We are watching the budget carefully,”Gallagher said.
Biggest differences in opinion: Ward 5 candidates Spaulding and Miller, regarding environmental concerns, showed the biggest gap in thinking. Spaulding endorses private property rights and hates land grabs like the water quality buffer zone. Miller believes protecting Norman’s water supply and the quality of the water is imperative.