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Property taxes for streets discussed

A public hearing slated to give residents a chance to comment on the City of Lawton's road funding program drew questions from only two people Tuesday, as the City Council moves closer to the Feb.14 election that will let Lawton voters determine whether property taxes will cover the cost.

Feb. 14 vote to decide multiyear, $55M bond issue

Council members slated the public hearing specifically for public input on a proposition that would give the city $55.3 million over the next 13 years by issuing a series of general obligation bonds. That bond debt would be repaid via property taxes, under a proposal that would allow the City of Lawton to keep the city's portion of ad valorem taxes at 10.5 mills over those 13 years, an amount that city administrators said is slightly less than the 10.68 mill average the city has seen in the last 15 years.

As proposed, the bonds would be allocated specifically to arterial and residential street upgrades and the engineering designs needed to craft construction plans for the work.

City Manager Jerry Ihler, noting that deteriorating streets is a common thread in citizen complaints about city needs, said city staff analyzed various options before settling on the proposal for ad valorem taxes, a funding method the city also has used in its Capital Improvements Programs. He said two other primary options weren't feasible: using sales tax revenue would mean raising the total sales tax paid in Lawton to 9.4 percent, something retailers oppose, while putting a change on city utility bills would mean a monthly increase of $12-13 to raise an amount similar to the $55.3 million possible through the plan to keep the city's share of property tax revenue at 10.5 mills.

Council members said residents have asked the city why it wasn't doing more, with some council members noting while the staff's preliminary list of residential and arterial priorities totals about $65 million, the city actually would need $250 million to $300 million to address all of its most pressing needs.

"We didn't want to raise people's property taxes," Ward 2 Councilman Keith Jackson said, responding to why the city didn't ask for a larger bond issue and later answering a resident's question. "This $55 million won't come anywhere near in getting it done."

"I'd love for there to be an outcry from citizens: Let's spend more and get it done," said Ward 6 Councilwoman Cherry Phillips.

The residents who did speak asked about the funding mechanism and exactly what the proposal would mean for the property taxes for the average home owner. Ihler conceded there would be a slight increase in property taxes in the first year, but only because the city has retired some bond debt so the city's portion of the county's annual mill levy fell to 7 mills in 2016. But, he noted that even with that 7 mill low in 2016, the city's average mill levy since 2002 has been 10.68 mills.

The Lawton Constitution

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