By JOSH NEWTON
Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols this week said he would not have supported additional sales taxes when he first took office as a city councilor eight years ago, but his opinion has changed as the city’s needs have evolved.
Nichols and members of the city council last week met with community members to discuss a proposed 3/4-cent sales tax - an additional 75 cents for every $100 spent on taxable sales - they hope to present to voters in January. If the 15-year tax is approved, it would fund around $21 million in capital improvement projects, almost all of which Nichols said could likely be completed within two years of passing the tax.
Experts have told the city it would actually be able to pay off the tax within 10 years, based on current growth projections.
After last week’s public discussion, Tahlequah resident and NSU professor John Yeutter on Facebook called out the mayor’s statements from eight years ago.
“I can remember someone who ran for a council seat on a ‘no new taxes’ promise,” Yeutter said. “He’s now mayor and seems to want to tax and spend.”
Nichols said when he ran for city council in 2004, he believed the city’s sales tax rate was “excessive.”
“I felt it was excessive, in part, because the city was not the recipient of any of the funds from the proposals that had been recently passed,” said Nichols. “But mostly it was because I felt that conditions didn’t justify the rate at the time.”
Now, eight years later, Nichols said the city and county populations have grown.
“Northeastern State [University]’s enrollment has grown, and the expectations of residents have grown, meaning our streets have gotten older as more people are trying to use them and more people are expecting a greater number - and higher level - of municipal services than was the case previously,” he said. “Much of our infrastructure was built with a population of under 10,000 people in mind. We have surpassed that mark and show no signs of slowing down. If we want to intelligently accommodate that growth and meet the rising standards of the community, more resources will have to be made available to our policemen, firemen, and city staff.”
The city’s growth and demand for services were obvious by the time Nichols began his campaign for mayor a few years ago, he said.
“I made clear that I believe the city can continue to operate on the 2.3 cents it receives in sales tax revenue, but I also made it clear that if we wanted our community to thrive, instead of simply survive, a decision would have to be made to provide the resources for improvements to city facilities and services,” said Nichols.
Council members Monday will consider taking action to put the proposal to a vote of the people in January. Last week’s discussion presented city residents the opportunity to make their own suggestions on what to include in the project, and Nichols said city officials have since tried working those ideas into the proposals previously been made by city employees and during strategic planning sessions last year.
“The idea for those sessions originated with the [Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce]. But I was eager to keep a campaign promise to not only accept, but to solicit, community input to help guide the city’s planning and operations,” said Nichols. “So I enthusiastically agreed to have the city partner with the Chamber to hold those meetings. The information gathered in them did prove very helpful in assembling the list of projects currently being considered.”
Nichols said the city has recently made structural changes to allow increased funding to be funneled into capital improvements. More money has gone into the police department and for parks improvements, and the funding for street projects has been doubled.
“Despite those efforts, we discovered the community’s needs were outgrowing our ability to address them. For each issue resolved, it seemed we would become aware of two or three others that needed attention. That isn’t a recipe for a healthy, growing community,” said Nichols. “We also began to recognize there are many [needed] street and road projects the city will never be able to afford given its current revenue structure. For example, we could divert the city’s entire budget for street improvements, parks improvements, fire trucks, and police cars for the next four to five years into improving just South Muskogee Avenue. It would take at least 15 years to complete the street projects that are currently under consideration.”
That, said Nichols, isn’t practical for a growing city.
“This capital improvements proposal is a plan that allows us to address those needs we won’t otherwise be able to,” he said. “The alternative is to let some very critical - and in some cases, unsafe - roads in our community to continue to deteriorate and allow inflation to make them more expensive to replace later, when the city would still be compelled to request a sales tax to fix them.”
Nichols hopes the proposed sales-tax project will begin to reverse the city’s trend of falling behind.
“While I had been thinking for weeks on the topic, serious consideration didn’t begin until last summer. I wanted to think through all other possible alternatives before speaking to the councilors about the possibility of a capital improvements proposal,” said Nichols. “I first told them of the pending development of the plan a few weeks ago, although there were many conversations related to our needs and how to address them going back much further. Those discussions helped develop and refine the list of projects within the current proposal.”
Nichols said the potential January election date is a logical choice, based on the need to be thorough in development of the proposals, their costs, and the funding for them.
“A January election also provides the most time to meet all the logistical and legal requirements involved with each project,” he said. “We’ve set ambitious timelines for the initiation and completion of these projects so the public realizes the benefit of their investment as quickly as possible. The flexibility additional time provides us might prevent a situation like the proposed swimming pool being completed during the winter and sitting for several months before it can be used. Or, it might help keep a street project from being delayed due to seasonal issues. It may help us minimize the impact of construction at a sports complex by having the heavy construction take place outside the season of play.”
Nichols said the additional expense of a special election in January will pay for itself in other savings if the proposal is passed.
“Even though there is a small additional expense at the front of process, the prevention of potential delays equates to greater public satisfaction with the finished products and may translate to savings that more than balance out that expense,” said Nichols. “The best example of the benefits of an election taking place as early as possible may come from the plan to convert the solid waste truck fleet to [compressed natural gas] vehicles. Each month, we burn diesel fuel rather than natural gas; we spend a few thousand extra dollars on fuel that would have otherwise been saved - roughly the cost of an election.”