Despite Strong Support, Citizens Concerned Ahead Of ‘Norman Forward’ Sales Tax Vote
Voters will decide Tuesday on one of Norman’s largest capital improvement projects in recent memory. Norman Forward is a 15-year half-a-percent sales tax that’s expected to raise more than $200 million for more than a dozen quality-of-life initiatives. But some citizens are concerned it’s too much over too long of a period.
“We can pick the most popular projects and build slowly instead of trying to bite it off all in one chunk,” said Norman resident Jim Seifried.
If Norman Forward passes, James Garner Ave. will extend all the way to Robinson Street. Sitting on a low brick wall next to the adjacent James Garner statue, Seifried says he’s still not convinced the new artery into downtown is necessary.
“We have Gray coming in from the east. We have Main coming in from the west right off the highway,” Seifried said. “This is one of those projects that could wait for ten years, and we’d still be viable.”
The James Garner extension’s price tag is about $6 million. That makes it one of the proposal’s least expensive projects. Norman Forward also includes $44 million in library improvements, a $14 million indoor aquatic center, and new sports facilities and community parks.
“Library, built in the 1960s. A 50-year-old Westwood swimming pool. Our kids playing basketball, volleyball in a World War II air hanger,” said Norman mayor Cindy Rosenthal, who thinks it’s hard to argue against replacing these outdated facilities.
“This is the opportunity for a really transformational investment in quality of life in Norman like nothing we've seen in the last 30-40 years,” Rosenthal said.
Voters rejected a bond issue in 2008 for library improvements. Rosenthal says Norman Forward is a way to get some of the library plans back on the ballot, and to implement projects on the city’s Parks Master Plan.
“It’s got deep roots from a desire to do a number of things that are good for the community,” Rosenthal said.
The city estimates Norman Forward will cost about $148 million – funded by that half-percent sales tax that goes into effect January 1. The taxes could generate up to $209 million in revenue bonds, with the extra going toward operation and maintenance costs.
University of Oklahoma economist Cynthia Rogers studies public finance and local development. She says sales taxes aren’t reliable sources of revenue, since they go up and down with the business cycle. There are also issues of income inequality.
“Sales taxes are regressive, and the poorest people spend all their money on things that are taxed,” Rogers said. “And so they bear a higher burden of a sales tax than wealthier people.”
Rogers is a resident of Ward 4, and she’s still on the fence about how she’ll vote Tuesday. There are 15 separate bullet points on the General Project Overview, and even though he plans to vote “no,” Jim Seifried admits he likes a lot of them.
“We've lump-summed everything. There's good things,” Seifried said. “But if you need an addition put on your home and a hailstorm came by and takes your roof off, what are you going to replace first? The addition that you want, or are you going to put a roof on your home?”
Rogers echoed Seifried’s sentiments.
“You ever go to a restaurant, and you think you're hungry, and you order a really big meal, and then you end up getting more than you've really needed?” Rogers asked. “I think it's sort-of like that kind of situation.”
But Rosenthal says a lot of the projects are interdependent. For example, you can’t make improvements to the soccer complex at 12th Ave. NE and Robinson Street until the city purchases Griffin Park and the Sutton Urban Wilderness.
“They sort-of come as dominoes, if you will,” Rosenthal said. “So there are timing issues that make sense for a single proposition.”
Seifried would rather see a five-year proposal to allow the economic climate to improve.
“For it to commit a half-cent sales tax for the next 15 years, we're not voting for us, we're actually voting our children's money in order to get these things built,” Seifried said. “Five years, half-cent sales tax we could build a library, buy Sutton and Griffin, and be able to expand the NYSA [Norman Youth Soccer Association soccer complex] and be able to get our pool up and going.”
Rogers says Norman is a little bit insulated since oil and gas doesn’t drive the city’s economy the way it does in other parts of the state. Norman Forward doesn’t have any organized opposition, and it’s expected to pass. But Rogers hopes Norman residents continue to voice their concerns.
“What access citizens will have, what fees will be charged, how some of these facilities will be managed?” Rogers said. “And I would think passing the vote and creating this stream of money is the starting point, certainly not the ending point, for citizen involvement.”
The proposal would also require the formation of a Citizens Review Board for oversight of the spending process. Rosenthal says existing boards and commissions will be involved in the review and input regarding the plans, design, and programming. The City Council will make the final design decisions after the public input process.
Polls are open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story implied existing boards and commissions would make up the Citizen's Review Board.