Tahlequah Daily Press

November 5, 2012

City officials have their work cut out


— Judging by the results of an online poll the Daily Press conducted, city officials have their work cut out for them if they’re to persuade voters to approve a 3/4-cent sales tax.

Officials aren’t saying voters have to pass the tax to maintain the status quo. But if Tahlequah residents want the infrastructure upgrades and public projects they’ve indicated they’d like to see, they’ll have to pay a tax, sooner or later.

Mayor Jason Nichols has taken heat from a couple of local folks who remind him he campaigned for city council eight years ago on a “no new taxes” plank. When he ran for mayor eight years ago, the city had changed, and so had Nichols’ opinion. In January 2011, he and the other two candidates for mayor participated in a forum, and answered questions. Their responses were published in the Daily Press and are still online at http://tinyurl.com/9bkj55g. In the lead-up to a pertinent question, the candidates were reminded Tahlequah’s permanent 2-cent retail sales tax is the primary source of revenue for the general fund, which pays for most public services – and that this tax is generally less than for other cities of comparable size. The question was: “Do you believe this level of funding is sufficient to meet the future demands for city services? Explain what actions you would take... to support your position.”

Nichols replied: “Tahlequah’s 2-cent tax rate is sufficient for continued operation. ... [The city] will be able to balance the budget and provide the same general level of service. ... The bigger question is whether the current level of service ... will be sufficient to meet the evolving standards of the community. ...It will be possible to collect more revenue without raising the tax rate... [but] it will be up to the people to decide whether they want to do that.”

Nichols’ position remains pretty much the same a year later: Tahlequah can operate at its present level of service with its current tax rate, but if residents want growth and improvements, they might have to consider additional revenue sources.

Claims that the mayor and council have adopted a “tax-and-spend” posture are a bit off the mark. Whereas a state or federal government might pass legislation that would amount to a tax, the city is merely asking voters to decide whether a new tax will, in fact, be levied. If voters say no, that’s that.

On the other hand, officials did approve generous raises for police chief, street commissioner and city clerk, placing the holders of these offices at a pay level well above the average local wage-earner. Though the issues may be unrelated, some folks may reason if the city can afford raises, it can afford infrastructure upgrades without a new tax.

Whatever the case, the tax won’t pass unless supporters are proactive. The largest block of the 228 respondents in our poll – 106, or 46 percent – are “absolutely not” in favor of the tax. Seventeen, or 7 percent, said they would “probably not” favor it. Fifty-eight, or 25 percent, said they “absolutely” favor the tax hike, while 43, or 19 percent, said they would “possibly” favor it, depending on the projects. Four people, 2 percent, were undecided.

The poll isn’t indicative of outcome. Although only city residents will be able to vote, anyone could take the survey. Restrictions on the vote are sticking in the craws of many rural Cherokee Countians, who have no say at the ballot box, but pay the taxes when they shop in Tahlequah.

Over the next few weeks, city officials and residents will be firming up projects they’d like to see funded. Some folks will vote “no,” regardless of how worthwhile the endeavors. Those aren’t the ones supporters need to court. They need to talk to voters who are reserving judgment until the final plan is in place. Progress isn’t free; it’s not even cheap. The question is, are city voters willing to pay the price? For right now, we can’t tell.