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Innovators in Action (Jan 2012 edition): Tulsa, Oklahoma Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Jr.

In the latest installment of Reason Foundation's Innovators in Action series, Tulsa, Oklahoma Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Jr. offers his reflections on tackling the city's fiscal challenges by embracing innovation, competition and market-based policies. In the article—available here—Mayor Bartlett details the bleak fiscal situation his administration walked into two years ago, his proactive approach to developing solutions and a number of the administration's implementation successes to date. In short, Mayor Bartlett is applying the tools of competition—such as competitive sourcing and public-private partnerships—to deliver better value to taxpayers and right the city's fiscal course.

An excerpt from Mayor Bartlett's article:

My first day in office was December 7, 2009. My finance director greeted me with the sober news that, after ten consecutive months of declining sales tax revenues, all previous measures to balance the city budget had failed to stop the real threat of deficit spending. Even though the previous administration had cut $10 million dollars in spending and had used almost $11 million of the reserve fund, my management team and I had 45 days to cut an additional $10 million from the operating budget. In total, this amounted to between 10% and 15% or $24 million of the operating budget.

Reductions by the previous mayor had included discontinuing public safety academies, turning off highway lights, grounding the police helicopters, and suspending the removal of graffiti and the mowing of public property. Even with city employees being furloughed eight days and the previous administration having spent 80% of the city's reserve fund after just five months of the fiscal year, more and bigger pain was on the immediate horizon. Defaulting on obligations was more real than at any time in Tulsa’s history.

We quickly discerned that the city government had not prepared for times such as these. City government had grown too big, it cost too much, it was doing too much, and it had made commitments and promises to our government employee unions that could not be kept.

[…]

With the help and guidance of my chief of staff and management team we have accomplished major changes after only two years. Over that time Tulsa has resumed both police and fire academies, the police helicopters are flying again, the highway lights are back on and the efforts toward mowing public property and removing graffiti have doubled. All of the employee furlough days have been eliminated, and for the first time in several years, the employees received a stipend increase in June. The reserve fund balance has been restored to almost $13 million and we continue to control our overhead cost by maintaining a 3% vacancy rate across all city departments. And, for the first time in memory, the city has reached collective bargaining agreements with all five of its bargaining units at the beginning of the fiscal year.

The secret of our success really is no secret. It takes applying conservative business and financial principles to government, the courage and political will to tackle the toughest of challenges, willingness to embrace innovation, competition and private market ideas.

Read the rest of the article here for Mayor Bartlett's detailed description of how his administration has gotten from there to here. He describes over a dozen different administration initiatives that span a broad range—from competitive service delivery to public-private partnerships to asset divestiture to implementation of internal efficiency initiatives. It's an impressive and ambitious agenda illustrative of the kind of thinking that will be critical to future public sector management. If you're not familiar with Mayor Bartlett or his reform agenda, you definitely should be.

With policymakers at all levels of government seeking ways to reduce spending and improve services delivered to taxpayers, Reason Foundation's Innovators in Action series highlights good government efforts that are delivering real results and value for taxpayers. It is our hope that that the examples and experiences offered by innovators like Mayor Bartlett will inspire reform-minded mayors and administrators elsewhere to provide better, leaner and cheaper government to taxpayers.

[Note to readers: In previous years, we have published Innovators in Action in an annual report format, the last edition having been released in early 2010. The publication has been on a temporary hiatus since then, but we are resuming publication in a slightly different format. In order to deliver timely content to our readers on a more frequent schedule, henceforth we plan to publish one Innovators article per month on reason.org, which will subsequently be compiled into a report format later in the calendar year.

Mayor Bartlett's article is the second in the 2012 Innovators in Action series. The first—my interview with Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnerships Authority executive director David Alvarez last fall—is available here.]

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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