Norman City Council may drop a $5 million business relief initiative from a multimillion dollar general obligation bond it hopes voters will approve in August.
For last two months, the council has discussed a $113 million bond package to supplement Norman Forward projects and municipal renovations after sales tax initiatives fell short of designs for several remaining voter approved projects.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the council discussed adding a $5 million relief package for businesses after it saved $5.1 million in a federal grant for a public transit project.
During Tuesday night’s study session several members expressed their uncertainty and one suggested the council renegotiate a tax increment finance district as a funding mechanism for aid.
Ward 8 Councilwoman Alexandra Scott, who said during the April 28th meeting that “capitalism is a pandemic,” suggested the council should add stimulus funds for “essential workers...who lost their jobs” because the city should be “covering all our bases and being inclusive.”
Ward 1 Councilwoman Kate Bierman suggested it expand to certain workers. Self-employed workers did not qualify for state unemployment benefits until the CARES Act made provision for these claims. The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission is overloaded with requests for benefits as it grapples with outdated technology. In the meantime, workers cannot file, wait for claims to pay or grapple with denied claims as their bills come due.
“One of the first questions on my list is why did we not add workers? We have sole proprietors included in this list. A sole proprietor is just a fancy name for a worker, you’re doing all the work yourself,” she said. “So if you are self-employed but maybe not through a sole proprietorship necessarily, you’re out of luck.”
City Attorney Kathryn Walker was concerned state law or bond industry guidelines may not allow or recommend a stimulus payout, but speculated it might be considered as part of an economic program. Nate Ellis with Public Finance Law Group told the council he would need to examine case law or statutes that address the matter.
City Manager Darrell Pyle speculated the city could experience the same overwhelming response to the offer as has the state’s unemployment system.
• Pull-back: The pull-back from council members on the relief package seemed to stem from the delay in funding and the overall financial burden to tax payers.
“By the time the bonds are sold, it’s going to be November before those bonds are available,” Ward 6 Councilman Bill Scanlon said. “The need is now and several council members have alluded to this. If there were some other way to find funds from the feds or the state, you can have funds that will be identified sooner rather than later.”
Scanlon took his concerns a step further with the $83 million bond package for Norman Forward. He agreed the projects should be completed according “to what the citizens want” but suggested the city might go for bonds in smaller increments for the Norman Forward portion of the package.
“With regard to an $83 million (Norman Forward) bond issue, that’s a lot to bite,” Scanlon said. “At least that’s what I’m hearing from people who have bothered to comment to me is they’d like to see it broken up into some projects, like parks for example.”
Ward 3 Councilwoman Alison Petrone asked the council to reexamine the University North Park TIF district agreement.
An amended agreement to the 13-year-old TIF was approved last November by council to retroactively end the TIF district as of June 20, 2019. The agreement would end the diversion of sales tax revenue to the TIF account with exception to remaining projects to be funded, city staff have said. A petition to rescind the November agreement was challenged in a Cleveland County District Court lawsuit by four previous serving mayors. The mayors won the case and petitioner proponent Stephen Ellis plans to file an appeal by May 15.
Tuesday was the second meeting since April 7 during which Petrone suggested Ellis, the mayors and UNP developers “see if they can’t come up with something that everybody can live with so that they (Ellis) don’t file for an appeal.”
Walker told The Transcript she contacted the developers attorneys.
“I did speak to attorneys for UNP and UTC,” Walker said Thursday. “They were not willing to renegotiate the deal (which) we worked on for almost a year.”
Tuesday’s discussion was part of a study session. The first reading for an ordinance to call for a bond election will be May 26.
Mindy Ragan Wood