University North Park

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

The entrance to University North Park welcomes shoppers to the Tax Increment Finance district, which was established in 2006.

The end is now in sight for the University North Park TIF.

On Tuesday, the city council voted to request an official recommendation from the TIF Statutory Review Committee — a legal requirement that gives the city’s TIF partners a chance to give input on any major changes to the project plan.

If there was any doubt about the will of the council before the meeting, three amendments to the resolution authored by council member Bill Hickman cleared the air.

The amended resolution that the council voted on didn’t simply request a recommendation from the TIF statutory review committee on how to end the TIF, it also unequivocally stated the council’s desire to see it closed as soon as possible.

It also offered a solution to “make NPS whole,” as closing the TIF would reduce funding to the district through the state’s funding formula. The resolution instructs city staff to prepare a proposal using revenues that would have gone to the TIF to pay for some or all of NPS’ School Resource Officer program, a voter-approved partnership of the city and school district.

The council also issued a deadline of 30 days for the committee to respond.

Regardless, it looks like it won’t matter what the committee sends back to the council. With a super majority, the council can decide to unilaterally end the tax increment finance district, and, as Hickman pointed out Tuesday, the votes are already there and, seemingly, all but cast.

“I hope council members will stick to their votes regardless of what comes back from the Statutory Review Committee,” Hickman said.

Though Tuesday’s vote to invoke the committee was a unanimous decision, Mayor Lynne Miller and council member Robert Castleberry expressed opposition to closing the TIF at this time.

Miller was the sole dissenting vote on one of Hickman’s amendments that changed the language of the resolution to reflect that the city council, not the “majority of the council,” as was originally written, wants to end the TIF.

Both Miller and Castleberry said they favor removing sales tax allocations to the TIF but expressed a desire to see it continue to protect state funding for Norman Public Schools and to honor the city’s agreement with its TIF partners: Cleveland County, Cleveland County Health Department, NPS and the Moore-Norman Technology Center.

“Three years from now, we will look back on this as a horrible mistake financially,” Castleberry said.

Miller said the city will be giving up clawback incentives by ending the deal early and there could be legal ramifications, as well. She said the TIF has been a success and should be allowed to end in a practical and well thought-out manner.

“This is hard for me, because I have lots of friends sitting out there who think this is the right thing to do, and I’ve heard that a lot, but the purpose of a TIF that’s structured like this is a long-term investment, and that’s not what we’re doing here,” she said.

“I think the wiser thing to do, and I guess we can still talk about it after the Statutory Review Committee, would be to do a reallocation of the TIF sales tax money, because it would put $300,000 more a month back into city coffers and that would bring us kind of back to even,” she said.

Despite her concern, Miller recognized the direction of the political winds. In a moment of resigned acceptance, she drew upon the wisdom of fictional golfer Roy McAvoy.

“I think it has implications for our relationships with the taxing jurisdictions and businesses, but I see where the council is,” she said. “I feel a little like Kevin Costner in ‘Tin Cup.’ I’ve tried to hit the ball a lot of times, and it’s not going anywhere.”

Facing a swell of anti-TIF sentiment from the public and a council majority dedicated to ending the district as soon as possible, it looks as though Miller and Castleberry will be unable to prevent the 25-year deal from coming to an early end.

Even the possibility of keeping the TIF alive without any city sales tax allocation was met with disfavor.

As noted by City Finance Director Anthony Francisco, if the council removed just the sales tax allocation, the TIF would continue to exist with ad valorem tax collections until project costs were met. With two projects still outstanding — the lifestyle center and the cultural center — and $10.7 million currently in the TIF fund, Francisco estimated that would take about seven years.

That’s seven years too long, council member Kate Bierman said.

She said she is concerned that council turnover could lead to a situation where the TIF were revived, along with a renewed OU Foundation arena push, if the council does not act now.

“I’m not going to support any half-measures that prolong the life of the TIF in any way,” she said. “If a future council wants to pass a TIF … they are more than welcome to do so, but I do not want to see this TIF with the 2006 sales tax baseline extended any longer than it needs to be … end means end.”

First enacted in 2006 with the aim of stimulating growth in the undeveloped area between Robinson Street and Rock Creek Road along I-35, the UNP TIF has been praised as both an economic success — responsible for $230 million in private investment, according to City Attorney Jeff Bryant — and decried as a disaster for its failure to deliver a regional draw, while cannibalizing Norman’s spending dollars and reducing the flow of sales tax dollars to the general fund.

Council member Joe Carter, who was elected in February on a campaign that focused on ending the TIF and opposing the OU Foundation’s arena deal, said Tuesday’s vote was a momentous occasion.

City manager search continues

The city council voted Tuesday to hire national recruiting firm Springsted Waters to aid in the city’s effort to find its next long-term city manager. The position is currently filled by interim city manager Mary Rupp. The position was formerly occupied by Steve Lewis, who spent 11 years in the role before being pushed out by the city council earlier this year.