In the race for Mayor of Tulsa, Dewey Bartlett is the incumbent having served for over three years. In this exclusive Tulsa Today interview, Bartlett discusses the job, the city, and the first so-called “non-partisan” race in Tulsa’s history.
Question: Mayor Bartlett, would you describe the state of the City when you took office.
Question: Mayor Bartlett, would you describe the state of the City when you took office.
Bartlett: The big event the first day, December 7, at 11:00 am was when City Finance Director Mike Kier told me that the budget projections (twice previously revised downward) were off in the final tally by about $2 million. The check for sales taxes arrived that day from the State of Oklahoma. At the rate the City of Tulsa was spending money, we would be out of cash and unable to pay the salaries of employees by March. To make it to the end of the fiscal year we would have to cut our expenses by $10 million – which meant significant layoffs.
My first thought: he was joking. He wasn’t. I called my staff for a meeting and Kier made the presentation again and, when he was done, the entire room was shocked silent.
Question: So former-Mayor Kathy Taylor who preceded you and is an announced candidate for mayor again didn’t provide that financial information during the transition?
Bartlett: They gave us financial history. They had turned the lights off on the expressways, grounded the police helicopters, canceled both a police and fire academy, and sold the police department horses used for crowd control. They had eliminated employee positions that had not yet been filled and laid off a few police officers. Taylor’s administration applied for a Federal Grant and, in the last days of her term, they were desperately trying to get those funds, but they never told us a financial disaster was coming – no red flags of warning.
While former-mayor Taylor did not personally take a salary, she used that money to hire people for her office. I think everybody should be paid for full-time work, including myself, so that also threw the budget off kilter because it had not been adjusted for her personal largess.
As my staff began to consider alternatives, our goal was not just immediate funds, but to fix the overspending roots of the financial problem for the City of Tulsa. The point is not to have a crisis at every downturn of sales tax receipts.
Indianapolis had gone through a similar challenge and had hired KPMG to do a top to bottom evaluation of city government and make recommendations for financial stability. We found charitable funding for a KPMG study at no cost to the taxpayers.
For Tulsa, the KPMG report became the guideline for what we had to do, but we didn’t get that report until much later in the year. In the meantime, our city staffing expense had to be cut. The City of Tulsa has seven different unions and separate civil service regulations that must be followed. We began a process that was fair and appropriate given the financial crisis we faced.
I decided that whatever cuts the employees might face, it had to be done equally. Previous mayors had a checkered past with which unions got favored treatment and which ones did not. I believe that is a terrible thing for morale.
We calculated the amount of money we were required to cut with each particular group. We gave each a list of suggestions on how to reduce expenses and invited them to use their own ideas, but we required each to hit their portion of reduction. If they refused or were unable to find savings, then I would lay-off enough people to reach the required goal. All the unions made those choices except the police union. They took a vote and did not want to make any changes. I met with all the employee groups and agreed that it was a terrible choice, but recommended to each what options were available. By taking lower salaries, they could keep their benefits, keep medical coverage, and keep everyone employed.
My pledge was that as soon as the City recovered financially, we would restore the cuts to salaries. When the police decided not to participate, I laid off about 130 police employees. That was a bad day.
Bartlett: Surviving that first financial crisis was a big one. The economy and sales tax revenue started picking back up and the KPMG report gave us organizational ideas to better deliver services. We found a lot of waste which was eliminated. We privatized the management of the zoo which was a significant savings and, it appears to date, good for the zoo.
We also asked the question, how are we getting our money? The answer was the Oklahoma Tax Commission which processes sales taxes. We found out there were 10s of millions of dollars that were paid by shoppers in the city that had never been picked up. To make it even worse, the Commission was charging us $2 million per year – 2 percent of what they collect.
When we looked at the contract, it was not a requirement for the Commission to pick up those sales taxes – the City of Tulsa could. We found a company in Alabama that would provide the service at a much lower rate. We notified the Tax Commission that we had selected another vender for this service and they got upset. They even went to the Legislature and had a bill passed to change the law to require cities use their services. The City of Tulsa sued and we won.
After some back and forth, we didn’t really mind using a state agency, but we wanted them to do a better job. The Tax Commission was not even auditing their work or the businesses submitting customer tax money. Additional legislation has now been passed that benefit all the municipalities in Oklahoma by providing flexibility in how sales taxes are collected and implementing audit procedures to properly account for all funds.
Since that time, Oklahoma Tax Commission service to Tulsa greatly improved. We started receiving monies that had not been paid and that helped us get finances in order. Tulsa now conducts an independent audit and, should we find a discrepancy, we turn it over to the Commission and they go collect it.
Question: From these examples; your term of office appears to be a conservative business-like approach to governing. Why are you attacked by some as not being conservative enough?
Bartlett: I have no clue other than pure political hogwash. In the example we just discussed, my question to those critics – especially those who may have previously held office – is why didn’t you look into this issue? How could officials from both political parties over many years fail to fix or even explore the question?
Bartlett: Better, but still not out of the woods yet. Every time we give a budget to the City Council, we still have to watch for crazy spending – it will be a problem.
We have funded a “rainy day” account which, when my term began, had no money, but now has $2 million. Not a lot of cushion, but better than nothing.
Question: Back to the KPMG study, what recommendations remain to be implemented?
Bartlett: They gave us 1,100 recommendations. Of those, we have implemented 81 to date and others are in process.
Question: Why haven’t we done more?
Bartlett: Because they take time. We must implement changes prudently and make certain what was recommended is correct and the best course of action. KPMG reviewed 20 departments, 1,512 services and gathered input from 457 employees in studying how the City works, but we have a diverse mission and each part of our delivery of each public service is important.
I formed the Management Review Office (MRO) with the sole purpose to evaluate a recommendation and make a determination of how it could be implemented. In some cases, there were several hundred people involved and it does take time to make sure you don’t make a bad move.
Question: As the Federal Government appears addicted to overspending and the national economy struggles, has your administration taken proactive steps to prepare our community for any economic eventuality?
Bartlett: I believe we have. All anyone can do is position for opportunity. We have developed more efficiency in core services. We have eliminated things we had no business doing. On the job creation side, we have focused on traditional strengths of Tulsa – energy, healthcare, aviation, and aerospace. Of those, healthcare is the most stable given the fluctuation of commodity markets.
In last year’s State of the City address, I focused on workforce development. The City of Tulsa has one of the best levels of training available anywhere in the country. Private training like Spartan Aviation and Tulsa Welding Academy, the Vo-Tech system and Tulsa Community College all provide excellent training that can be and often is structured to meet the specific needs of area employers. That is a tremendous asset for economic growth as is the hard-working, competent, responsible and creative nature of our people.
Question: There is an obligation for any city to wave the flag and invite new businesses to locate in the area. That effort has, in part, been subcontracted for decades to the Chamber of Commerce. Is the City of Tulsa getting its money’s worth from that contract and how is that service judged?
Bartlett: Yes we are getting good service from the Chamber. Some may disagree, but I have monitored Chamber activity and worked my own contacts in the energy industry. We also have opportunity with existing companies that are growing. I have directed the Chamber to focus more on our core industries and they have done so and found success with that approach.
Specifically, we asked the Chamber to focus more on the manufacturing side of the Oil and Gas Industry. Tulsa is second only to Houston in the number of people employed manufacturing oil and gas related equipment. Some of those plants are expanding to other industries to diversify their businesses and employ more Tulsans. Our capabilities are unique, technical and increasing attention to those efforts is well deserved. We have also hired an economic development consultant responsible to the Mayor’s Office to help wave the flag and coordinate solicitation efforts with State and the Chamber.
Question: Is the Chamber an honest, active, well-regulated contractor for the City?
Bartlett: I believe it is. They have a large diverse board that oversees staff activity. We have a couple of contracts with them and we have made some changes during my term to require more detail in their reporting of activity. There is some concern in the city by the Chamber’s approach as a regional Chamber. I had some concerns on that as well, but dollars travel regardless of city limits. Citizens throughout Northeastern Oklahoma may work in Tulsa or live and work on a farm, but still visit and spend money here.
Question: Do you think it may be the establishment of the City Council which more narrowly focuses citizens on their own district, precinct or neighborhood rather than the greater community?
Bartlett: I’m not sure, but it seems natural to look from your home outward. If they see their neighborhood declining, but see, for example, Fight Safety moving to Broken Arrow they interpret that as a loss or unfair in some regard, but people move around. They will travel not just for business, but for entertainment, shopping, and worship. Tulsa has high caliber professional services, sporting events, festivals and entertainment not available elsewhere in the region. We don’t think about it often, but people drive from Kansas to Tulsa to take in a new movie. Go visit one of the shopping centers and drive the parking lot looking at car tags and you will see plates from Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and beyond.
If we work together throughout the region, we will all prosper. It is a historic economic fact.
Question: What are your top three goals in your next term?
Bartlett: In short, 1.) Increasing public safety, 2.) job creation and economic development, and 3.) keeping the government running efficiently at the lowest cost without reducing core services.
Of course, we must live within our own means and not become extravagant which is how we should live individually and as a community. If we look at the Federal Government and do the exact opposite – we should be ok.
I am proud of my record of service and I will continue to increase the quality of city government, but Tulsa needs continuity in leadership. When I was elected; Tulsa had seen four mayors in ten years. That is not good.
Every administration has its own vision and mine began under fire, but we have made difficult choices with transparency, honesty, and, in my opinion, judgments in the best interest of the citizens of the City of Tulsa.
Question: What do you think about your major challengers in this election for mayor?
Bartlett: Early on, some criticized me suggesting I would run for another office. I said no, absolutely not. I have no desire to run for another office. I want to stick with being Mayor of the City of Tulsa – good times or not through thick or thin until the last day of my last term. No one should use this important office as a stepping stone or be mayor while campaigning elsewhere.
I issued a challenge to former-Councilor Bill Christiansen and former-Mayor Kathy Taylor to take that same pledge – to stick with the job from day one until the last day and to not use the mayor’s seat as a springboard. From what my staff has reported back, Christiansen agreed and Taylor declined. I was surprised at that and believe it unfortunate.
Maybe she thinks of it as an advantage to the citizens – to abandon duties in pursuit of greater ambitions – given the state of the city after former-Mayor Taylor’s last term.
Editor’s Note: Tulsa Today has posted an interview with another contender for the mayor’s office former-councilor Bill Christiansen. We have also contacted former-mayor Kathy Taylor by telephone and twice visited her campaign office to schedule an interview but she appears to be dodging media that might ask real questions. It is interesting how the top three contenders for the office of mayor respond to media. More in that in future stories on Tulsa Today.