By JOSH NEWTON
Tahlequah voters gave approval Tuesday for the city to collect an additional 3/4-percent sales tax to fund $21 million in capital improvement projects.
Unofficial tallies show 52.5 percent, or 506 voters, favored the tax proposal, with 457 voters, or 47.5 percent, opposing it.
“I’m very pleased,” said Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols. “I want to say thank you to the people of Tahlequah for supporting the measure, because the initiative was very vital to the community’s future. I want everyone who was skeptical of this for oversight reasons, or any other reason, to know we’ll do everything we can to continue answering the questions they have, and we’ll be as transparent as possible.”
Election results are not official until Friday evening.
Fewer than 1,000 of the city’s 5,000-plus registered voters cast their ballots in the special election for the tax. Vote totals at all city precincts, and those cast early and through absentee ballots favored the tax proposal.
Tahlequah Ward 4 Councilor Linda Spyres said she is “thrilled” voters approved the sales tax increase.
“Now, Tahlequah’s future is assured for the next several years,” said Spyres. “We appreciate everyone who voted. This may be one of the most important things you will do for Tahlequah. Without your support, all of the projects would not be possible.”
Tuesday’s vote also drew praise from other community leaders, including Tahlequah Main Street Association Director Drew Haley, and Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce Director David Moore.
Moore said the vote shows the commitment of citizens and business leaders to the city’s future.
“We ask businesses and citizens to invest in Tahlequah every day, and once again, the citizens have stepped up to make that same investment and commitment to the future,” said Moore. “It now falls on the shoulders of the city to carry out voters’ wishes for the projects they have committed to. We look forward to Tahlequah starting these projects in the next few days. I’m very proud of Tahlequah.”
Northeastern State University President Dr. Steve Turner expressed his thanks to voters and called the measure a “new era” for the city.
Jerry Cook, a former mayor and NSU’s director of community and government relations, said the proposal shouldn’t be looked at solely as a tax increase.
“Sometimes these things are labeled as a tax issue, but it’s really an investment in the community,” said Cook. “The real fruits [of the proposal] are going to be seen down the road.”
Nichols said he will soon be contacting the city’s consultants and meeting with city staff to kick off the project. The 3/4-penny sales tax increase will take effect April 1, and Nichols previously said most projects could be finished in less than two years.
For now, he looks forward to getting an oversight committee in place and approved by the city council.
Just more than $10 million will be invested in city streets, including the widening of Muskogee Avenue, from Fourth Street south to the bypass, to five lanes; and projects on North Grand, East and West Fourth Street, Bluff Avenue, East Allen Road, and North Cedar Avenue.
Public safety will receive $1.5 million for police technology, fire department equipment, and emergency management systems and storm sirens. The city’s parks and recreation areas will get more than $4.6 million for the second phase of the Anthis-Brennan sports complex; a swimming pool; Phoenix Park renovations; and greenway development including bike trails, a toddler playground, a dog park, and more.
Just shy of $5 million is earmarked for facility improvements, including renovations of the old National Guard facility on the west edge of town into a new police station; library improvements, including handicapped-accessibility; a community center addition at NSU; traffic and pedestrian safety improvements; and the conversion of solid-waste vehicles to compressed natural gas.
The sales tax increase amounts to 75 cents more for every $100 spent on taxable items in the city. The tax is set to have a 15-year life span, but experts have said the city could pay it off in about 10 years.