While it might not get as much attention as who will win Oklahoma’s Democratic primary, Oklahoma City voters could take a big step toward boosting their parks department Tuesday.
Former OKC City Councilman Ed Shadid launched an initiative petition in June 2019 for a 1/8 cent sales tax that would provide funding for operational and maintenance expenses.
Those include funding for the replacement and addition of trees, expanded child and adult park programming, as well as some capital improvements like restrooms, soccer goals and baseball backstops, according to the Yes for Parks website.
At the time of his initiative petition’s launch, Shadid said big-ticket MAPS items built over the years have left the city’s parks department strapped for funding. He said future economic downturns could further stretch the department’s budget.
“We’re already in a situation where we can’t pay for what we’ve built, and we’re about to have another tsunami of projects that will not have operations and maintenance,” Shadid said at the time. “That will almost certainly mean deep cuts to the parks department when the next recession hits. This initiative petition is something that is complementary to MAPS 4.”
The OKC Parks and Recreation Department had a $24 million operating budget in 2018. Roughly 13 percent of its current budget goes to fund programming. It spends more than $7 million annually on grounds management and more than $5 million on managing the city’s natural resources. About 6 percent of the city is considered park land.
Holt favors endowments
OKC Mayor David Holt has said little about the parks vote. When Shadid launched his initiative petition, Holt said that if enough signatures were gathered and an election date were set, it shouldn’t share the same vote as MAPS 4, the renewal of a $0.01 sales tax which voters approved by a wide margin Dec. 10.
“A permanent tax for transit and a permanent tax for parks isn’t MAPS,” Holt said. “Those are entirely reasonable conversations to have, but we’re focused on MAPS. It can quickly become confusing for people who only follow it in passing that somehow this is a MAPS substitute or altering MAPS. But it’s really just a different conversation in my mind.”
At the time, Holt said he favors endowments to cover increased operating and maintenance expenses that come from MAPS capital projects.
“I look back on MAPS 3 and think, ‘Would it have been the end of the world if we had an endowment for the Riversport or an endowment for Scissortail Park built into it?’” Holt told KWTV in September.
Holt said the endowments would provide long-term funding.
“We are building $70 million worth of youth centers, and we have a roughly $30 million in operating funds, which would spin off conservatively to $1.3 million a year forever,” Holt said.
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The OKC parks sales tax initiative appears to be facing some social media opposition, such as Facebook posts from former Oklahoma Republican Party Chairwoman Pam Pollard. A group called Secure Oklahoma Inc has also been running television ads opposing the proposed sales tax.
“Vote no on a tax that was slipped in through backchannels,” the group’s TV ad states.
A sample ballot of the parks initiative petition’s language can be found here. Early voting began Thursday and continues through Saturday at county election boards.