By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Voices continue to be raised in the same refrain: “We shouldn’t fund permanent positions with a temporary tax.”
To that end, many Norman residents voiced support for making the Public Safety Sales Tax permanent, thus protecting the 71 police and fire positions the half-percent tax supports.
Those 71 positions are in addition to the jobs already funded by the city’s general fund. More “boots on the ground” for public safety was a selling point for the creation of the PSST seven years ago.
Norman voters will soon decide whether to renew the public safety sales tax that has built two fire stations and added 41 police officers and 30 firefighters to protect the city.
The half-percent sales tax designated for public safety took effect in October 2008 and will run through September 2015. With that expiration date coming up, the city has been working on a proposal for PSST renewal.
The tax also has been used to pay for some one-time capital expenses, including fire apparatus, the Smalley Army Armory Center renovation into the Norman Investigations facility, computer-aided dispatch, records management, mobile data systems conversion and police in-car video systems.
A citizens oversight committee monitors the special tax to see that it is collected and spent appropriately and reports annually to the city.
The original tax was approved as a temporary tax. Proponents of keeping the tax temporary say renewing the tax every few years allows for an adjusted rate based on need and sales tax trends.
To that end, the city council had proposed that the PSST be renewed at the current half-percent rate for a period of 10 years, generating an estimated $11 million the first year and about $16 million in year 10.
If approved, the tax would be effective from Oct. 1, 2015, through Sept. 30, 2025. The tax would allow Norman to retain the 71 police officer and firefighter positions created by the first seven years of the tax. Additionally, a small percentage of the funds would be put into the Rainy Day fund.
In addition to continuing to support 71 police and fire positions, one of the proposals in the PSST renewal is for an additional13 police offices to serve as school resource officers. Norman Public Schools would share the cost of those officers.
The tax renewal would fund four additional communications officers (dispatchers) and two mechanics to service emergency vehicles and would help pay for critical public safety capital needs.
Norman Police Chief Keith Humphrey said increases in school shootings over recent years has led to a dialogue with public schools over the need to add school resource officers.
Humphrey said schools with officers have lower rates of fatalities during school shooting incidents.
“We truly believe that this is a program that can help our schools and our community to remain safe,” Humphrey said.
The school resource officers would phase in over a two-year period and would include one supervisor, two officers at each of the two public high schools, one officer at Dimensions Academy and one officer each at the four middle schools. Three additional officers would rotate between the 15 elementary schools.
Critical capital needs identified by the city and included in the PSST renewal proposal include a $15 million emergency communication system.
Maj. J.D. Younger reported that the city’s radio and communication system is out of date, has consistent failures and is comprised of equipment that will not be available for replacement because it is being phased out. The new system will include additional radio towers, a core, consoles and moble handheld radios.
The PSST renewal also would pay for a $6.5 million Emergency Operations Dispatch Center.
On the most-needed list from the Norman Fire Department is $6.8 million to replace fire apparatus, including five fire engines, a heavy rescue truck, a ladder truck and an air supply truck. Another $3.5 million would allow the fire department to relocate Fire Station No. 5 to an area that would better serve Norman. The old station is in the Little Axe area.
The additional equipment and relocation of Fire Station No. 5 should result in a better ISO number for Norman residents, resulting in lower property taxes and better response times.
During the public comment and question portion of the public meeting, Little Axe Elementary Principal Sandra Staton said Little Axe residents pay city of Norman taxes and the school would like to have a full-time school resource police officer.
Humphrey said he has been in discussion with the Little Axe superintendent. Whether an officer could be provided through the current proposal for the PSST renewal would depend on a number of factors yet to be determined.
Many residents expressed support for making the PSST permanent, rather than a 10-year renewal. Among the supporters for a permanent tax were a representative from the firefighters union and Sean Rieger, speaking on behalf of the Builders Association of South Central Oklahoma.
The debate continued on whether the tax renewal vote should move forward in April or wait until August. Council member Robert Castleberry said he wants more time to hammer out the details of the PSST renewal.
“What’s so magical about April that our police and fire being properly funded can’t wait?” Castleberry said.
Norman Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Andy Sherrer said the city council should move forward with an April vote if they can answer the questions raised at the public meeting and agree on the terms that are best for Norman in time to move forward. Otherwise, the council should hammer out a clear plan and wait until August.
“I think it is imperative that we continue to support public safety in our community,” Sherrer said.
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