Good news! Or it's great news, as far as it goes!
We had a meeting with representatives from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation last week, and they gave us the verbal OK to move forward. We're going to be allowed to put crosswalks across the bypass at Downing and at South Muskogee near Walmart. Both are very much needed. People are regularly crossing traffic lanes at these locations. You only have to look at the worn footpaths to confirm the frequent presence of pedestrians.
In the same meeting, we talked about ODOT funding available to complete the expansion of East Fourth Street to three lanes from the bridge to the bypass, including a sidewalk on one side. The ODOT funding was originally intended to cover 75 percent of the cost of the project. It will still go a long way toward getting this project done. On our end, we must update the plans, finish acquiring the last of the rights-of-way, and work with the utility companies to clear the way before building can start.
For both projects, we also must identify funds that will pay our expenses. With the General Fund in a tight spot, planning on excess operating revenue to get these projects off the ground isn't an option. Once again, City Council will be asked to weigh fiscal responsibility with the need to address safety issues and infrastructure demands.
If only we had a savings account with money accumulating monthly to meet our street and sidewalk demands! Early voting starts next Thursday, and the election itself is Tuesday, Sept. 10. The question on the ballot would provide the city with exactly that savings account. And should it pass, the sales tax rate for the city won't be any higher than it is now. The proposition asks for a half-cent sales tax to be used solely for "…capital improvement for the construction, improvement, maintenance, operation and repair of Tahlequah City streets, alleys, roadways, bridges, sidewalks and other similar or related public infrastructure." The money generated would go into a separate account to be invested until needed for projects like these two examples.
Our 2009 bonds are maturing in September. The half-cent sales tax that supports those bonds will not be collected after the end of the month. If the proposal on the ballot passes, the new half-cent sales tax will go into effect Jan. 1.
A half-cent sales tax is a nickel on every $10 spent. It's not a lot of money by itself. When applied to all the purchases in the city, though, it's about $1.5 million per year. As our city grows and our sales tax revenue increases, the funds available for streets and sidewalks will similarly increase. The question has a six-year term. It will have to renewed by the voters in 2025, if it works as intended.
If you're a voter in the city, or you can encourage a voter in the city, please make your voice be heard on Sept. 10. This is a rare opportunity to consistently fund our street and sidewalk needs through savings rather than borrowing money with bonds.
Sue Catron, former assistant vice president of Business and Finance at NSU, is mayor of Tahlequah.