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Oklahoma City voters to decide parks initiative

A fitness class from Odyssey Leadership Academy plays baseball at Scissortail Park in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]
A fitness class from Odyssey Leadership Academy plays baseball at Scissortail Park in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

Sparrow Park in near-northwest Oklahoma City has a few pieces of playground equipment, a faux Route 66 picnic shelter, a walking path and benches, and a few trees.

On a winter afternoon, wood smoke is in the air and someone plays with a couple of dogs. Otherwise Sparrow Park is bereft.

If voters agree Tuesday to a one-eighth cent sales tax dedicated to parks, the city's Parks and Recreation Department will be asking neighbors how it could be better.

Parks advocates collected nearly 8,000 signatures to qualify their citizens' initiative for the ballot. It would raise funds to benefit most of the city's 169 municipal parks.

Mailers favoring the measure say the estimated $13 million in annual revenue would enable Parks and Recreation to expand athletic leagues, offer neighborhood park activities such as dog training classes, and sponsor children's after-school studies in science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM).

An organization calling itself Secure Oklahoma Inc. began running ads in opposition last week. One television station reports that the group booked spots worth $21,000.

The request to voters for secure parks funding comes as the city manager is requiring Parks and Recreation to cut its budget by $368,000 for 2020-21.

"Our parks budget is already not funded to the level they should be to provide opportunity to residents," Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon said by text.

"I’ve received a number of requests from constituents for improvements at parks," she said. "When I’ve asked parks staff if we can make those improvements, the answer has been that they don’t have it allocated in their budget or in a bond project.

"With a dedicated funding source to our community parks that can be used for programming and infrastructure," Hamon said. "I see an opportunity for resident tax dollars to feed directly into services they can access that can improve our overall health and wellness."

Former longtime Ward 4 Councilman Pete White, who is working to win passage, said in January that Parks and Recreation always bears the brunt when there is a budget 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."

The annual revenue would amount to about a 50% increase in parks funding. An advocates' poll last spring found strong support for the idea.

The proposal is analogous to the voter-approved one-eighth cent sales tax for the Oklahoma City Zoo. Police and fire also have dedicated funding streams.

Dedicated funding helps make the zoo one of the best bargains in the country and supports programs that bring in visitors, including children, who otherwise could not afford to visit.

With such a base under his budget, Director Doug Kupper said Parks and Recreation could provide higher-end programs with "good, quality instructors … either free or at a very low cost."

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 ›