Posted by: Cindy Downes | September 20, 2007

Debate on the River Tax in Tulsa

As part of our Intro to Mass Communication class, we were allowed to attend the Tulsa River Project Debate at Northeast Campus on Wednesday. We were then asked to write a paper about our impressions. Here are mine:

My impression of this “debate” was that it was not really a fair debate. They had four speakers: Winn Estrada, who was against the River project; Roberts Nichols, who was supposedly impartial; and Victor Muse and Randy Miller who were for the project. Winn Estrada had 10-15 minutes. The rest of the time was taken by the other three, with the majority of the time used by Randy Miller.

Victor Muse began the “debate” by outlining the current status of the river (looks bad, health problems to humans and wildlife, water is stagnant, sometimes too much water, sometimes too little) as well as the status of Zinc Dam (needs repair). He then gave the plan for the River. (1) Add water to the river by adding a dam at Sandsprings and one at Jenks, as well as repair Zink Dam. (2) Improve bridges, nature walks, and trails. He then said that to do this we need a major source of funds and that the sales tax increase would be that source along with the private money donated by private investors ($117M pledge to put in parks). The total amount from the public in the form of a tax increase is $280M. Finally, he stated the advantages: The river would not be an eyesore. It would be a welcome place for Tulsans. He gave examples of other “successful” projects similar to this one (1) Branson – now a major tourist attraction with shops and entertainment (2) China – 3 Gorges? project and (3) OK City – doubled their economy in less than a year. In conclusion, he said that the project will improve the wildlife, creating flowing water in the river, make room for additional lakes, create a distinctive place of waterfalls, parks, shopping, music, and entertainment.

Next up was Winn Estrada who was against the project. He first talked about the effect that the project would have on the homes in the area. He specifically mentioned the mobile home community of Southern Villa and how the project would “engulf” everyone who lives around the river. It would created additional crime, pollution, and traffic. He used 3 Gorges in China as an example where the project will put 2 million people out of their homes with no place to go. Next, he talked about the environment. The river has a Bald Eagle nesting site which will be affected by the project. He stated that the project has plans for the finch population along the river by creating an island for them; however, there are no plans to protect our National Bird, the Bald Eagle. In China, the 3-Gorges project caused the paddlefish to become an endangered species and the China river dolphins have all but disappeared. Third, Winn talked about the Economics of the project. He reminded us that these tax increases are always backed by lots of promises: (1) the liquor tax was going to save our school, (2) the lottery was going to save our school – where is that money? The increase to our sales tax rate will make us one of the 5 highest sales taxes in the nation – more than New York Cities (8.375% in NYC; 8.917% for Tulsa County; 9.417% in Sandsprings). Finally, if they spend all this on parks, and entertainment, where are they going to get the money to police the river? San Antonio was cited as an example of how that crime becomes a major problem along riverwalks. Where are the police going to come from? We were promised 200 new policemen for the last sale tax increase, but never got them.

After the two students “debated,” which took about 20 minutes, Robert Nichols, a professor and eminent domain lawyer gave what he called “neutral information about river development.” He talked about how Tulsa’s development came from the development of the Arkansas River. First, Mr. Avery, built a bridge that brought Route 66 through Oklahoma, the 11th Street Bridge is what caused Tulsa to grow into the city it is today, the bridges at 71st and 96th street brought further development. He ended with a statement about the future of the city will depend on development of the Arkansas River. His talk lasted about ten minutes.

Finally, Randy Miller took the podium. She spent the remaining 30 minutes pushing for the River project. She began with a statement about how long she has been hearing that Tulsans’ want river development. When 2025 went through, they didn’t have a plan, but “now we have a plan.” She explained that this plan will cover 42 miles along the river, from Keystone to Wagoner County Line. She talked about the engineer who have approved the plan and that the sales tax in Tulsa County will not be the highest tax in the nation – our property tax is higher and we will pay tax one way or another – either in sales tax or property tax. She then appealed directly to the TCC students by saying that they needed jobs when they graduate or they would move away from Tulsa. She added that the government had two jobs: defense and government infrastructure. This project is part of that job and it will bring 10x the tax amount in revenue to the area (3.5 billion is being quoted). The sales tax dollars will result from the people who come into Tulsa to spend money as a result of this project. This revenue can then be used for police. She stated that there is no emminent domain problems and no environmental problems.

She then opened up for questions. (I could not hear all the questions; however I did hear her answers.)

Someone asked about the odors along the river mentioning the refinery and sewage plant. Her answer was that the water will flow which will eliminate the odors from the river stagnation. When specifically asked about the refineries and sewage plant, she stated that no part of the project will be next to those areas and it is too cost prohibitive to remove them ($500M).

I asked her why someone living in Broken Arrow should vote for the river tax. Her answer was that it will create thousands of jobs for people in Broken Arrow and outlying in communities. She cited the example that Del Computer just moved in to OKC because of the river project there.

I asked about the eagles and she stated that the project would not affect this eagle habitat. I then asked to hear from Winn exactly why he thought it would. She said she did not come to debate her “constituents;” however, note that her whole speech up to this point was a “debate” against her constituent. She did give him the microphone briefly, but she kept talking about not debating her constituent and he was not able to get the “floor” back to adequately answer the question.

Someone then asked about the condition of the roads and why we should not fix them first. Her answer was that there is already $200M set aside for roads in Tulsa. There is some kind of “Bottleneck” that they are trying to figure out why this money is not getting used. They “think” it is because there are not enough companies in Oklahoma to do road repair and she encouraged the students to start a business in road repair as there is a definite need.

She ended with the statement that if this doesn’t pass, it will be 20 years before it can come to the table again.

I got the impression that the students at TCC were called together in order to “convince” them to vote for the river tax. The brief amount of time that the student debater against the project had was short in contrast to the time used by those in favor of the project. To be fair, they should have had someone as strong as Randy Miller for the “Con” side to speak, not a lawyer who wouldn’t commit himself but only gave “facts” that implied a need to vote for the project.

I believe Winn (the student for) had a much better presentation as he backed up his statements with examples and facts. Victor Muse and Randy Miller spent most of their time “promising” a Cinderella ending to our river problems with no concrete facts. It was mostly an emotional appeal for tax money to create beauty, entertainment, and jobs with no facts to back it up. Their use of OKC, China, and Branson left a lot of questions:

(1) Do we really want a tourist trap like Branson with that kind of traffic?

(2) Do we want to affect the local homeowners and wildlife without a plan to protect them?

(3) Do we want to spend more tax money for a “promise” of more jobs without examining the truth behind this statement? What kind of jobs? Should Broken Arrow and other outlying communities vote to increase their taxes to drive 15-20 miles for minimum wage jobs at restaurants and stores? Why not put that money into our own communities so that we don’t have to drive so far. Isn’t it a bit egocentric to think that Tulsa is the only place that can provide jobs for us who live outside of Tulsa? Or that the river HAS to be developed in order to provide more jobs. Pryor just landed Google in their back yard and Broken Arrow just got Bass Pro Shops. No part of the river was developed before this happened. There is life before taxes.

(4) Do we want to trust them to handle more of our hard earned money when they can’t even handle the supposed $200M set aside to fix our roads? How can we expect them to use this new money without it getting “bottlenecked?” Furthermore, do we believe them that there are not enough road contractors in Oklahoma to get the job done, when sitting right next to me was the daughter of a road contractor who has been trying to get work from Tulsa to improve the roads but is denied the right to compete because of some “rules” they have about WHO can do the work. Who are these rules protecting? In the meantime, we students have to drive through big potholes every day to park at the Metro Campus because a student’s dad isn’t allowed to do the job of fixing them and all the time the city sits on $200M collecting interest to be spent on what?

(5) Do we want to spend more tax money that will supposedly create MORE money that can be used for policemen when we were already promised 200 more policemen that we never got? What about maintenance? What’s going to fund that? And if we do get revenue, it will supposedly come in 7 years. Can we wait that long to fix our streets, add more policemen and improve our schools? Let’s see some results from previous tax increases first.

(6) Do we want to create a 46-mile river project around a refinery and sewage plant that sits between 41st & 61st street on the west side of the river and ignore the fact that it smells? How are the visitors from Tulsa going to walk from downtown to 96th street along the river without being assaulted from these smells? I bicycle along there and have to hold my breath as I ride past this area. Somehow, that doesn’t seem very appealing. If we’re not going to build there and not near the Eagles, where are we going to develop? Near Jenks? They are already doing that and with PRIVATE money! We can’t take out the historical homes on the East side – what about the apartments on the west side near 11th street?

Although this was not discussed, I also want to address the Senior Citizen rebate. This is a $25 rebate that citizens must apply for EVERY year. It is based on spending $500/month on taxable products. I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot more than $500 a month on taxable products. And how many of us are going to go through the process every year of getting our rebate back? Why not at least make it easy to get it back by putting it on our income tax forms each year like we did with the telephone rebate? Oh, by the way, this rebate doesn’t go into effect until 2009!

In conclusion, this “debate” did not change my mind about the River Project. As a matter of fact, after learning about the $200M backlog of money for roads being “bottlenecked,” the lack of plans for protecting our homeowners and wildlife in the area, the lack of provision for the increased crime, and being insulted about having to depend on Tulsa for my livelihood, this debate increased my desire to tell everyone I know to vote against this project.

For more information on the project, view these websites (both pro and con):

Vote on October 9th!

Request for Absentee Ballot (if you can’t make it to the voting booth on Oct 9th )




  1. Great report, and great job asking tough questions.

  2. Thank you for that. It was very helpful and informative. I liked your ending comments very much.

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