A work session, called recently by the Duncan City Council, appears to have met its primary goals.
Frustrated members of the city’s governing body and key department heads, stung by a 271-vote defeat they hadn’t expected May 14 when they sought permission to increase property taxes and generate $9 million over a three-year period to repair badly deteriorating streets across town and surprised so few people – only 1,507 of nearly 13,000 registered voters took time to vote – seemed to care, sought citizen input, suggestions and direction.
Optimistically, they moved the scheduled meeting from a municipal building conference room to council chambers in hopes of accommodating a large crowd. And though the turnout of approximately 20 people was small, it was huge compared to the previous vacuum of missing persons offering insight.
A direct message was and is obvious.
Street conditions are worsening. Repairs are mandatory. Councilmen are committed to improvement.
That’s a significant statement given, to a man, the council brashly said it would back away from a massive renovation program should voters reject its proposal. It was a strategic, political message that didn’t work. Given time to reassess its position and acknowledging the seriousness of the problem, it has rethought the bravado and, properly, is moving forward.
Finding adequate funding is the issue,
City manager Jim Frieda, speaking for the council, says there are three options.
Try again to increase property taxes, utilizing a legitimate, aggressive campaign to inform and encourage voters to agree to its plan that would annually cost an additional $98.03 for the owner of a house valued at $150,000.
Implement an increase in the current 8.7 percent sales tax, generating roughly $1.8 to $2 million annually through a half-cent increase, surpassing the 9 percent barrier.
Borrow the money, increasing the city’s debt load with a 10-year payback akin to a similar effort enacted in 2007, adding $10.75 million debt to retire the $9 million need.
Citizens, most of whom had been “no” voters in recent local school bond issues and several of whom own multiple properties, weighed in as requested.
They seemed, not surprisingly, unaware of the complexities of managing a $61 million budget. They talked of the need to re-seal all streets, to hire more employees, to acquire proper equipment, to implement again a broader maintenance plan, to sweep streets more often and to enforce more strictly existing load ordinances. And they suggested other financing possibilities.
There seemed little support for a property tax increase, suggesting it wouldn’t fairly share the burden even if the increase was passed along to renters.
There seemed little support for a revenue borrowing bond, embracing ongoing plans to reduce, not increase, overall city debt.
There was group support for a sales tax, calling it a fair tax because it draws not only from all residents, but visitors as well. It drew more enthusiastic support when Duncan Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Chris Deal, after asking the city to “democratize” the process, said a half-cent sales tax wouldn’t be as drastic as previously envisioned, though concerns about breaking the 9 percent barrier and the possible loss of sales tax due to “box store” expansion in Lawton remain.
In fact, a straw vote of the small turnout, requested by Councilman Ritchie Dennington, substantially favored the sales tax.
That’s because, perhaps, a fourth option – alternative financing -- was not included in the balloting process.
Citizens suggested monies generated since 1995 by a half-cent sales tax and dedicated to economic development should be considered a possible partial or full funding source, linking infrastructure as part of economic development.
Frieda indicated there have been no such discussions, but he added the council will open a dialogue with leaders of the Duncan Area Economic Development Foundation (DAEDF).
The three-hour work session yielded no answers. It did open publically the conversation. It produced what the council obviously thought was valuable and welcomed input. It reaffirmed the commitment to fixing city streets. And it started anew the process for making something important and positive happen.
Much is left to be done, but the building of a consensus is under way.
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