Hey folks! I’m finally getting around to writing a standard article again. I’ve been more than content using my Facebook page to push out updates on our local politics, but this topic requires a little more organization, so here we go!
Roads and Remnants
A few months ago we learned about the council’s plan to put a bond on the ballot for February 14th, Valentine’s Day. The purpose of this bond is to address Lawton’s infrastructure a tad more aggressively – specifically, the roads. Initially, myself and my local friends on social media were critical of the plan, and understandably so. The council isn’t in the habit of explaining themselves on each matter or reaching out to draw in constituents not already plugged into what’s happening down at city hall. They passed the Safety Tax last year and counted it a victory when it passed with 80% approval, even though only 2500/100,000 voted (to be fair Lawton has 100k residents but the number of voting age individuals is probably much less – say 50k for fun). They settle for the remnant – those who don’t need hand holding to get involved. And again to be fair (I’m just a super fair guy, you know?), even the revolutionaries who conceived of this union of States had to settle for the remnant. The Remnant has always carried the bulk of the burden where any kind of political change is concerned. If Thomas Jefferson and George Washington couldn’t do better, it should come as no surprise our city council has decided not to try for more.
So right out of the gate, of course I’m wildly critical of the bond. Fifty-five million sounds like a lot, and I was trying to connect all the dots I could to see the implications of such a loan being taken. For example, the interest could be as high as 10%. That’s what the resolution allows for on paper. Well, 10% of $55 million over 13 years is quite a lot. Plus given that the council exercised its ability to make changes to how they used the Safety Tax, how could we know they wouldn’t bamboozle us on this Road Plan of theirs? So I was putting out warnings to my readership about the risks I saw, urging them to vote no on the 14th of next month.
That’s when Keith Jackson, of whom I have been very critical thus far, offered to schedule a meeting between he, myself, and the city manager (Jerry Ilher). It was surprising and a little unsettling. I’d spent months criticizing the man and allowing myself to objectify him as a kind of enemy, and though I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get my questions answered, it still felt a little like swimming out into deeper waters where I had previously seen sharks. Regardless, we set a date and I put some questions together, inviting along a friend who also had a beef with the council for his own reasons (just for fun….I ain’t scared or nothin’!). So we set down, and I ended up learning…
Why $55 Million?
I learned that $55 million was only about 15% of what the council will have to spend to get the roads all caught up in town. I learned that they settled on that amount because any more than that would have raised property taxes, whereas 55 million kind of just keeps them level until or unless the city ends up incurring some additional bond debt while this bond is still active. They knew it wouldn’t likely pass if they asked for what they really needed to fix all the roads. Granted, it seems like we should have seen our council keeping up with the roads along the way so that we wouldn’t be looking at a $600,000,000 project if done all at once. Still, we have to start somewhere, and if we’re not ready to trust our roads to the market to fix, then we were bound to see a bond like this come up.
What About the Interest Rates?
Before the meeting I did the math. Ten percent interest on fifty-five million over thirteen years was about $72 million in interest. That’s more than the whole loan! Even if you cut the interest rate in half, that’s still $36 million, which is a lot of interest to pay on $55 million in road maintenance. Good news! The loan is actually one separate loan for each year the bond is active. Their plan is to borrow about three million the first year, for example, and ten million the second, and so on and so forth. Additionally, the interest rate they got on their last bond was something like 1.6%, and they expected it to be close to that this time as well. Phew! Bullet dodged. So not only will we be taking the loans out in spendable increments, but the interest rate is not nearly so mind-blowing as I feared. If they get a rate at or below 2% this time, the biggest loan on their borrowing plan will incur an interest payment of no more than $110,000 for that year. Compared to $72 million, that’s a pretty calm number.
The Payment Plan
So I’m not totally clear on whether or not we’ll be paying each year’s loan back in full over the course of that year, but I think we’ll be making payments and giving it the old heave-ho. What’s left unpaid at the end of the thirteen years must be paid in full, and before the meeting I was wondering how in the world that would be possible. After all, if they needed to borrow the money in the first place what makes them think we’ll have the money to pay it all back at the end? But that wasn’t the case. We’ll most likely have a little debt leftover at the end and they’ll allocate funds to pay for it from one of the Capital Improvement Plans (CIPs).
Will Your Property Taxes Raise?
I’m not going to bore you with all the details….just kidding! I am. So it turns out our property taxes go to several organizations including VoTech, LPS, the county government, and the city government. Of those, the city gets the least. They showed me a chart. It was a great chart. This was a very, very good chart folks. Believe me. I’m not sure, but I’ve had dozens of really, really smart chart makers tell me that this is what the future of charting looks like. ….Okay kidding aside, the chart just showed the levels of our property taxes to the city.
These levels stay low enough that they have to be measured in tenths of cents (called ‘mils’).
The most the city has exacted in mils annually in the last decade is 16 (1.6 pennies to the dollar). As the city borrows to pay for things, the mils go up. As they pay off the debt, the mils go down. This mechanism alongside sales tax represents a standard in funding for municipalities (or at least Lawton), and paying off all their debt and letting the mils go down to zero doesn’t save us much, and it doesn’t get anything done in Lawton. So they used their uber math skills to determine what size loan would hold their mils steady at 10.5 for the duration of the loan and decided on that amount – $55.3 million.
So in short, you’re property taxes might raise, but by such a small amount that you probably won’t even notice it, and they weren’t going to let the mils drop to zero in any case, so a steady 10.5 is right in the middle of the spectrum along which they usually fluctuate.
This Thing Called Transparency
An ongoing theme in the relationship between the council and the residents is this issue of transparency. There’s so much that goes on at city hall that most residents aren’t aware of or don’t understand (and/or aren’t even interested in). This isn’t anyone’s fault. Sure, the council could work OT to educate their wards, but individual residents could also take an interest like I did and end up learning all about it. No biggie, there’s still time, and good things are happening to increase transparency in our city government.
Where the road plan is concerned, they have a lot of the tedious data that people like me enjoy having access to, and I saw some of it in the meeting. They’ve surveyed almost every street in Lawton and graded it along a scale taking several factors into consideration. That said, this info isn’t posted in bold print on the website. You have to search for it, and I know we can do better than that if we’re going to be asking residents to approve debt (even debt as relatively minor as the Valentine’s Day bond). If you want to learn more my suggestion would be to contact the city clerk or your council person respectively and ask your questions. They have a lot of the answers, though you may need to go down there and have them print that info out, as it can be a little hard to explain.
How Should We Vote?
Well I can’t tell you that, silly! I hope I’ve given you enough information to make an informed decision. I’ll leave you guys with some final thoughts, though. The council has repeatedly said that if this bond doesn’t pass now, they won’t be able to address the roads again until 2025. This is almost certainly untrue. They can put another, better road plan on the ballot in the near future if they want. But can they sell a larger, more appropriate bond to an already skeptical residential population? It comes back to how much work they are willing to put into increasing transparency, informing the residents, and persuading them to buy in to such a plan. They’ve tried hard to make this debt acceptable to you, the residents, but because of that it’s not enough to catch the roads up by a long shot.
So if I vote no, it will be because I want a bond that actually catches the road repair up before I qualify for a senior citizen’s discount. It will be because I want to see them laying the groundwork for trust that gets a bond like that passed. If I vote yes, it will be because it gets the ball rolling at the risk of this money not being spent exactly how I’d like it to be, and on the hope that we can still implement and pay for a more aggressive plan sometime in the near future instead of having to wait for thirteen years to replace this half-measure with a full one.
On Keith Jackson
I want to give Jackson credit where it’s due. He sat down with me when he didn’t have to, and even if it was only to keep me from constantly criticizing the bond, he was professional and open, offering plenty of data and answering all my questions. He and Jerry spent almost four hours with my friend and I that morning. So while Jackson and I may not agree on the solutions to what faces us as an economy and a people in Lawton, he’s not the villain I expected. He seems to work hard at his job and stay more informed on the issues than a lot of other council members we’ve had. I’m sure I’ll come out against him on other issues in the future, but I respect that he takes the job seriously. This meeting helped me a great deal in being able to write with balance and offer you, the residents, a more accurate list of questions and concerns regarding how the city operates. So Keith, Jerry, I appreciate your time.
See you all on the interwebs! Remember, only local matters. We must keep our political concerns within the scope of our political influence if we are going to impact our environments. Don’t worry about Trump. Don’t worry about congress. We can’t do much of anything about them. We can alter the course of this town, so let’s do that first, and then see what we can do on the state level!