The Norman Transcript

November 25, 2013

Norman City Council members consider renewing half-cent Public Safety Sales Tax

By Jessica Bruha
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — City council members discussed renewing the half-cent Public Safety Sales Tax during a scheduled city council retreat Monday.

Nothing has been decided yet, but members discussed whether the renewal would include another temporary tax and how long that would be in effect, or a permanent tax.

Whatever is decided, it is evident money will be needed in future fiscal years to fulfill public safety needs in the community.

The current sales tax was set up to pay for the salary of 71 people, including 41 police officers and 30 firefighters. There are currently 69 on the payroll, and police officers will be added to that before the sales tax ends in September 2015.

If the sales tax isn’t renewed by September, or three months before that, it could affect 71 people, said Anthony Francisco, city finance director.

Temporary sales tax renewal: Mayor Cindy Rosenthal said she was in favor of renewing the half-cent sales tax for another seven-year period because it has already been proven to be successful. Rosenthal said the city has proven to voters the formula works, so why fix something that isn’t broken?

Rosenthal said she thinks they should put together a specific plan on what they would use the money for, so voters will know what their money would go toward if the renewal passed.

The plan would include continuing to pay for those 71 salaries, adding more police officers and firefighters and outlining what their specific duties would be, as well as outlining each of the departments’ specific capital needs.

City council members Lynne Miller and Stephen Holman agreed.

Permanent sales tax: Council member Robert Castleberry said he would prefer a permanent tax because they are putting permanent employees on a temporary tax.

Castleberry also suggested they should consider a permanent quarter-cent tax for those salaries and a temporary quarter-cent tax for capital needs so they aren’t leaving people out to dry.

Rosenthal said she believed they would see a lot of push back from that.

“We promised five years ago to return the issue to the voters,” she said.

That’s exactly what she wants to do, and she said she believes if the city tells voters what their specific needs are, voters will “step up to the plate.”

A bond package: Council members also briefly discussed a possible bond package for future capital needs.

A long-term sales tax would support those capital needs, but a temporary sales tax may not. Francisco said a seven-year sales tax would not fulfill the needs of a 20-year project.

Council member Greg Heiple questioned Francisco about considering a bond package because current interest rates are incredibly low.

Francisco agreed that from a math standpoint, now would be a good time to pursue a bond.

Council member Tom Kovach also made the point that capital needs presented Monday totaled $35 million, and a bond could make a big dent in that.

Rosenthal said they might want to defer a bond package when there is more time to discuss the issue.

Future public safety needs: If a temporary or permanent sales tax was approved by voters, city council members discussed what some of that money would go toward. The biggest concern was keeping the 71 officers and firefighters on the payroll, as well as adding more boots on the ground to combat understaffing in the future.

“With the city and university growing, there will always be a need for additional officers,” Police Chief Keith Humphrey said.

The police department and oversight committee have been discussing placing some of those additional officers at the schools.

There also has been discussion at partnering with Norman Public Schools, meaning part of the cost could be shared for putting officers into the schools again.

If that were the case, officers would be assigned permanently to the two high schools and four middle schools. Rovers would be used for the elementary schools, Humphrey said.

As far as capital needs go, the entire city is in need of a radio system replacement, which must be done by 2018 at the latest, Humphrey said.

The radio system, which will cost about $12 million, is the top priority in terms of capital needs. Humphrey said that is something they will need to replace all at once, too. If the city takes the chance of replacing things each year, it could cost more in the long run.

In addition to the radio system replacement the two departments listed other future capital needs and about how much they would cost:

· Emergency operations or dispatch center, $6.5 million

· Relocation of Fire Station 5, $3.5 million

· Renovation of the police firing range, $5.6 million

· Fire apparatus replacement, $6.8 million

· Fire station land acquisition, $1 million

Norman Fire Chief James Fullingim said Fire Station 5 needs to be relocated to better serve the community. Some of the current fire apparatuses they are in need of replacing are on their last legs, Fullingim has said in previous public safety oversight committee meetings.

The fire station land acquisition would deal with the need for two future fire stations to accommodate the city’s growing population.

Needs already fulfilled: Some of the needs the current safety sales tax has already fulfilled include:

· Two new fire stations and an aerial apparatus truck to equip Fire Station 9

· Replacement of two fire engines and one fire engine with a ladder

· Community-oriented policing activities throughout the city

· Replacement of Computer-Aided Dispatch, Records Management and Mobile Data Systems

· Replacement of three fire brush trucks and a fire engine ladder, which are scheduled to be purchased in Fisca Year 2014

· Purchase of two fire tanker trucks and a fire command vehicle in FY 2014

· Renovation of the Smalley Armory into a fire and police investigations facility to be completed in FY 2014

· Purchase of police in-car video recording equipment in FY 2014.

Further discussion of renewal: The city council is looking at the possibility of putting the sales tax renewal on the 2014 ballot for voters to decide. To do that, members must make a decision by December or January on what kind of renewal that would be.

The issue will be further discussed at the city council’s next study session Dec. 3. Rosenthal also said council members should attend the Public Safety Oversight Committee’s monthly meeting in December to further discuss the issue.

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