Norman voters will decide in November if they want to allocate a one-eighth percent sales tax to public transit.
The Norman City Council on Tuesday passed an ordinance for the ballot language and a resolution for the Nov. 12 special election.
This potential tax would take effect at the same time a Cleveland County one-quarter percent sales tax is either expiring or continuing at a reduced rate, depending on what voters choose. Both the city and the county sales tax questions will be on the November ballot.
The ballot language restricts the one-eighth percent sales tax for public transit systems and related purposes, and includes a sunset clause that would allow the council to end the tax if the Regional Transit Authority provides further funding for Norman’s public transit. The City of Norman began taking over the University of Oklahoma’s bus system, Cleveland Area Rapid Transit, in July, but the associated costs were more than anticipated, Public Works Director Shawn O’Leary said in August.
“[The one-eighth percent sales tax] will certainly give us what we need to operate the system,” O’Leary said. “That’s about the delta or the figure that we need to make the system operate without having a negative impact on our general fund budget.”
Taylor Johnson, the city’s new public transit coordinator, gave a presentation Tuesday night for where the city is with it’s newly operated public transit system and the costs associated.
The city’s share of the transit system is $2.2 million per year, he said. The anticipated revenue from the one-eighth percent sales tax citywide, if voters pass it, will be $2.5 million per year. Buses provided 300,861 fixed-route rides and 32,412 paratransit rides in Fiscal Year 2019, which ended June 30, according to a city news release. The paratransit rides were for residents with limited mobility or another disability that makes it difficult for them to access a fixed-route bus stop.
The cost to maintain and operate the bus system, not including the campus-only routes that OU operates, is approximately $5.3 million per year, according to the news release. The city’s major sources of funding for the system are an annual $2 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority and a $1.1 million contribution from the City’s General Fund, leaving a $2.2 million annual shortfall.
“We would face very difficult decisions if on the ongoing basis we were to provide the current level of public transit services without any funding,” Anthony Francisco, finance director, said. “Either public transit or some services would have to be cut, because the general fund would be picking up that full cost of the services.”
The ballot language includes an exclusion from “non-dedicated” University North Park Tax Increment Finance district revenues. It reads, “the additional tax authorized under this Ordinance shall not be considered a ‘non-dedicated’ tax as contemplated in the Norman University North Park Project Plan, and accordingly no revenues generated from this additional tax levied on retail sales occurring within the Increment District shall be considered part of the Sales Tax Increment apportioned to the University North Park Tax Increment Finance District.”
“I’m excited for the timing that this happened. I know full well, we all do, that this is a sales tax and we all know that sales taxes are regressive,” Mayor Breea Clark said. “This is not how we prefer to fund city services, but by the great state of Oklahoma’s constitution this is how we fund city services.”
While Clark recognizes that this is a new tax, she said Norman residents won’t see an increase from what they are currently paying. This is an excellent opportunity, she said because while it is inherently regressive, the people who benefit from public transportation are the ones that are also impacted by regressive sales taxes.
“So, I am never comfortable with it, but this makes me feel a little more fair about this proposal, because of who it is going to benefit the most,” Clark said. “We didn’t ask for the lovely gift of public transit, but we have it and it is an opportunity and we have an opportunity as a city to invest in ourselves and to invest in our future.”
In a separate question, the county will ask voters to continue the one-quarter percent sales tax at a reduced rate of one-eighth percent. The tax is ending early because the county paid off its jail bonds 10 years early.
The Cleveland County Board of County Commissioners voted July 29 to add the proposed tax to the Nov. 12 ballot for a countywide vote.
According to the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office, all county residents stand to benefit from the public safety investments planned for the tax continuation, which include grants for rural fire departments, a funding stream for jail maintenance, operations, salaries and programs, funding for facility and program upgrades at the county’s juvenile detention center and funding for better pay of sheriff’s office deputies and staff.
If the majority votes yes on both sales tax initiatives in November, the current one-quarter percent sales tax rate would effectively continue, but with half staying with the county and half going to the city. If the majority votes no on both, the one-quarter percent sales tax rate administered by the county would expire in March 2020.
In other business:
• New Ward 4 Council Member: Norman resident Lee Hall was sworn in as the new Ward 4 council member Tuesday night, and joined the rest of the council on the dais for the remainder of the meeting. The Ward 4 Selection Committee recommended Hall after a round of interviews with 15 candidates from Ward 4, and Hall will now serve until the term ends in July.
Hall has most recently served on the Center City Administrative Delay Ad Hoc Committee and a subcommittee under the Historic District Commission charged with reading the historic district guidelines. Hall said she has ward-specific goals and wants to do her best to represent the ward, but recognizes that there will be a learning curve in catching up to the council on city issues.
Former Ward 4 council member Bill Hickman is joining the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy Board of Directors. The institute does not allow active elected officials on its board. Hickman’s last council meeting was Aug. 27 and his resignation officially went into effect Aug. 28.
• Traffic Signal Repairs: The council unanimously passed a resolution that will appropriate $51,220 from the Risk Management Miscellaneous Reimbursements/refunds account to repair and replace traffic signal equipment or traffic signs damaged in traffic collisions.
• Video Detection System Update: The council unanimously passed a resolution that will appropriate $6,741 from the Miscellaneous Revenues/Reimbursements/Refunds account to reimburse the City of Norman for fronting the total cost of the video detection system to accommodate the traffic changes made by the University of Oklahoma that effect the intersection of Jenkins Avenue and Felgar Street.
• Mayoral Proclamations: Mayor Breea Clark proclaimed the week of Sept. 17-23, 2019 as constitution week in the City of Norman. She also proclaimed Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 as Hispanic Heritage Month in the City of Norman.
• Roll Call: Joe Carter, Ward 2 council member, was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.