Mayor's advisory team meets to talk bond projects

Keri Thornton | Daily Press

Ward 3 Councilor Stephen Highers looked at infomation on the 2013 bond projects on Thursday. He said there is $4.4 million left from the $24.5 million in bonds.

Financial experts met recently with Tahlequah Mayor Sue Catron to form an advisory group for studying bond project modifications.

The mayor appointed the team after she became concerned with city finances. She said it was a wise move to have individuals with knowledge of accounting and finances to answer her questions.

"I do appreciate each of these individuals for agreeing to act as an adviser to me. It allows me to take more complete suggestions or options to the Council," said Catron.

She tapped three bankers, a certified public accountant, City Treasurer Lanny Williams, and Stephen Highers, president of the Tahlequah City Council, to be part of the advisory group. Highers said others at the initial meeting were Mark Gish, J.D. Carey, Bobby McAlpine and Marty Hainzinger.

Highers, who serves Ward 3, was asked by Catron to be part of the group. He said the main focus has been the 2013 bond projects.

"She said she was putting together an advisory group to talk about the bond issue and how to move forward with those projects," said Highers. "I felt that the group was saying these projects are important; maybe [we should] start with Muskogee Avenue, then work our way through some of them."

In 2013, voters approved a bond issue for close to $22 million for improvements, which got the city's capital needs caught up. The bonds were for $24.5 million, with interest of $7.5 million. In 2018, the city completed two major street renovation projects that included Bluff Avenue and West Fourth Street. This year, North Cedar Avenue and Muskogee Avenue are slated to undergo renovations.

The advisory group had its introductory meeting in June, and Catron said she asked the members if modifications to the remaining projects were needed.

"I was having difficulty determining exactly how much money remained for those projects and what would be needed to complete them," she said. "However, I knew that we will be short. I asked for input about possibly modifying project scopes or other ideas that might help the city deliver what had been promised."

Highers said everyone wants to projects to be completed, but the question is whether the money is available to complete them. Plans are in place to move forward with the South Muskogee project, and Highers said officials have met with engineers to implement revisions.

"They're talking about taking it to a five-lane pretty much from the either the Bypass or Meadow Creek all the way to Fourth Street," said Highers. "It would be five lanes and two lanes dedicated turn lane, and then sidewalks."

He said several different projects were part of the bond package, and many have been completed. The city has $4.4 million remaining from the bonds, and Ward 4 Councilor Trae Ratliff would like to reallocate some of the money to fund the Phoenix Park renovation.

"Through the budget, we might be able to get there, and it shows in our budget there is $4.7 million left to spend on the projects," said Highers. "I think where some of the talk is, they put those numbers together in 2013. It's now 2019, and the cost of things has gone up."

Highers wants the advisory group to help the mayor familiarize herself with the budget, finances and projects, and understand where they have been, where they're at and where they're going.

"I think this group is the 'where we're going' portion of that phase. We've had this much money in the bank and we've got these projects to finish now, so how do we go about getting this done. Which projects do we prioritize to get the streets going?" he said.

As far as goals for the group, Catron said the individuals acting as advisers have no specific task before them, so there are no set goals.