Assessor takes exception

In a Tulsa World article about the Tulsa County budget that was published on Monday, January 9, 2012, there were a number of mischaracterizations with which the Tulsa County Assessor takes exception.

The report to the Excise Board of Tulsa County discloses operating costs of more than $250 million.  The notion that county governments “live and die” by property tax collections overstates its importance with respect to Tulsa County. Ad valorem property tax revenue amounts to a little less than $50 million, or 20% of the total operational costs.

Yazel said, “This is the typical routine for county government officials.  They decide not to tell the public about all the money they have, and then plead poor about the fact that one source of revenue isn’t going up as fast as it once did.  In the budget process, the Tulsa County Budget Board actually advertises to the public a budget of about $64 million when in fact, taking all funds and fund balances into account, those same elected officials exert influence over $256 million for county operations.

“When I came into office, Tulsa County had year-end cash fund balances of around $15 million.  Now those balances have increased to over $32 million, more than enough to cover the anticipated $3 million increase for medical benefits and other fixed costs as discussed in the news article.”

As a proponent of fiscal responsibility and lower taxes, Yazel is open to reviewing reductions in expenditures, especially when there is a corresponding reduction of the tax burden on the public. The County, when it presents its budget for review and approval by the County Excise Board, can request less money or recommend to the Excise Board that County funds equal to the amount of any County cost reduction be redirected to other entities and higher priorities such as schools, cities or even internally the Sheriff’s Department, where they are currently experiencing high turnover due to their inability to pay competitive salaries.

Yazel’s position as Assessor puts him in a unique position to speak to prospective increases or decreases in total property valuations in Tulsa County.  He issued a statement to County officials and the public in 2011 that there was a unique, one-time, decrease in values due to a change in the valuation distribution for a single, large Tulsa County taxpayer, which is centrally assessed by the Oklahoma Tax Commission.  Yazel doesn’t see a particular downward or upward trend in current property values, and with expected modest growth in additional businesses and residences in Tulsa County, he anticipates an increase in the rate of growth of total property valuations in 2012 over 2011.  Yazel says, “The County collection of fees, sales tax and property tax will likely increase once more next year.”

Articles such as that written in the Tulsa World may sound good to the average taxpayer, but tend to be extremely misleading to the public. For instance, when Yazel came into office there were fewer people employed by Tulsa County than today.  There were 104 employees in the Assessor’s office and Yazel immediately reduced and maintains a staff that is 20% smaller than upon his arrival to county government. That represents an annual savings of over $1 million.

Yazel said, “This is the question the taxpayers have to ask the elected officials of Tulsa County:  ‘If by cutting the Assessor’s budget in 2003 saved over $1 million per year, where did the money go?  Was there a reduction in property taxes as a result?  What was that savings eventually spent on?’  This is precisely my point with respect to the Tulsa World article.  Where is the corresponding reduction in property taxes, or is the money just going into the surplus to be spent on something else later?”

In the last ten years, County employment has increased in total.  The current budget reflects an employee count for the county that has increased by 21% over the actual count for the previous year.  Vehicles authorized in the current budget increased by 24%.  This increase was downplayed by certain elected officials by saying to the public that there would be a level budget.  Yazel wants factual, accurate, and understandable information provided to the public, and for a true budget process to be implemented for the whole County government operation.

Tulsa County government ad valorem revenue has gone from $34,897,478 in 2002 to $50,481,437 in 2011, an annualized increase of 3.76%.  Overall spending for County Government operations has increased from $168 million in 2004 to over $256 million for the year ending June, 2011.  This represents a huge increase of 52%.  The actual overall expenditures are reported to the Excise Board months after the Excise Board has voted on the County budget.  These expenditures should be openly discussed as a package at the time the County budget is presented to the Excise Board, and the Excise Board should take them into account and exercise their independent oversight responsibilities accordingly.

In addition, Tulsa County officials have been making public statements to the effect that over the past three years there has been a flat budget.  In 2010, general fund expenditures by the County officials amounted to $65 million.  In 2011, those same expenditures amounted to $68.8 million.  “That is an increase of 6%.  During that same time cash fund balances and unspent carryovers also increased by 6%.  That is not flat, and well above what might be accounted for by the increasing costs of health benefits and other fixed costs as indicated in the news article.  It is very misleading for the public to be told that County Government is going to execute a level or reduced financial plan,” Yazel said.

While it sounds good to have a story saying a government body will work to reduce expenses, if all that happens is for those savings to accumulate as a surplus or to be spent on something else at another time (especially in view of the fact that Tulsa County has over $32 million in cash funds and over $7 million in carryover balances at its disposal), then it really doesn’t provide any tangible benefit to the taxpayers of Tulsa County.  The public deserves an accurate, open, and transparent look at county operational expenditures.  So must the Excise Board be provided the same information on a timely basis so they can properly exercise and execute their oversight responsibilities.

“My over-riding focus is what is good for the taxpayers,” Yazel said.  “In this case, unless the savings are redirected for some specific purpose, then I do not believe the taxpayers are being properly served.  We must fully and openly address the public in the budgetary process and cease immediately any misinformation going to the taxpayers.”