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City budget envisions parks cuts

Kids enjoy the playground during the grand opening weekend of Scissortail Park in Oklahoma City, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. [Alonzo Adams for The Oklahoman]
Kids enjoy the playground during the grand opening weekend of Scissortail Park in Oklahoma City, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. [Alonzo Adams for The Oklahoman]

A proposed budget cut shows why Oklahoma City parks need dedicated funding insulated from turf battles when revenue slips, a former city councilman said Monday.

"That makes my point perfectly," said former Ward 4 Councilman Pete White, who is working to win voters' approval for a one-eighth cent sales tax dedicated to parks.

"Every time there's a cut, it's deeper and the hole they have to climb out of is deeper — every time," White said. "That's the way it always is."

Most city departments, including parks, have been directed to submit proposed budgets reflecting a 2.25% reduction from an adjusted base. Department budgets are due Feb 3.

Parks and Recreation has been directed to find $519,000 in savings, through efficiencies and without cutting services.

After accounting for increases in wages and retirement costs and for reductions, including in insurance, to produce an adjusted base, parks will actually have less money from the general fund, about $28.6 million, to spend in 2020-21 than it had this year.

So far, there is no sign fees will increase.

Results vary across departments.

Planning, one of the smaller departments, would get an increase of about $30,000, to $4.16 million. Public Works would absorb a $568,000 cut, to $33.7 million.

Transit would get a $280,000 increase. The mayor's office gets a slight increase, while the city manager's office takes a cut, half of that by offloading a job to another department.

Police and Fire departments are being directed to propose much smaller percentage cuts, 0.3%, from the adjusted base.

The actual increase for police is $2 million. For fire, the actual increase is $4 million.

Like all cities in Oklahoma, Oklahoma City is dependent upon sales and use tax revenue to finance day-to-day operations.

Sales tax was down 1.9% this month, while use tax revenue fell 18%.

Budget managers anticipated a slowdown in sales tax growth this winter and spring but the January downturn was something of a surprise.

"Sales tax is turning," City Manager Craig Freeman told the city council last week.

The budget office issued revised directions to department directors on Jan. 13, saying managers had been forced "to reconsider our revenue projections" for fiscal 2021.

Doug Dowler, the budget director, pointed to "significant reductions" in revenue traceable to a slowdown in collections from oil- and gas-related businesses.

The city council will review the budget outlook at its annual workshop Feb. 11. The council has budget hearings scheduled in the spring.

The new budget must be balanced and most likely will be adopted June 9.

Voters will decide March 3 whether to approve the one-eighth cent sales tax for parks. It qualified for the ballot as the result of a citizens' initiative campaign that collected nearly 8,000 petition signatures.

Revenue would be dedicated to neighborhood parks. Outdoor activities such as athletic leagues and exercise classes would be funded, along with park improvements such as baseball field backstops, soccer goals and restrooms.

An advocates' poll last spring found strong support.

"It will give a base so that the parks will have revenue, without being so affected by the budget restrictions," White said.

William Crum

OU and Norman High School graduate, formerly worked as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and the Norman Transcript. Married, two children, lives in Norman. Read more ›

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