By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Coming off two record-setting years in sales tax returns, a 10th-straight year of operating with a budget surplus and with the Renaissance project reaching its final stage and a $50 million parks plan vote set March 5, Enid City Manager Eric Benson said residents of Enid have a lot to look forward to in 2013 and beyond.
Benson’s comments came shortly before city of Enid Chief Financial Officer Jerald Gilbert presented to city commissioners an audit that showed the city’s revenue up 11 percent and expenses down six percent in 2012 for a surplus of $15.8 million.
‘Strong financial footing’
Benson said the city’s sound financial footing has been the result of a long-term effort on the part of himself, assistant city manager Joan Riley, and the city of Enid employees.
“The city is, and has been, on a very strong financial footing,” Benson said. “Every year since Joan and I have been here at the city, we’ve operated with a balanced budget.”
According to audit report data provided by the city’s finance office, Enid has operated “in the black,” with revenues exceeding expenses, every year for the last 10 years.
And, revenue growth has outpaced rising expenses, leading to a surplus margin that has grown over the last 10 years.
In 2003, the city brought in $49.4 million in revenue and spent $38.9 million for a surplus of $10.5 million. The 2012 audit, including $78.2 million in revenue and $62.4 million in expenses, showed a net a surplus of $15.8 million.
The city’s net assets also have shown strong growth, corresponding to the city’s increased revenues. Net assets have increased almost 91 percent since 2005, from $100.2 million to the current level of $191 million.
‘Turning a profit’
Benson attributed the city’s fiscal performance to a long-term shift in fiscal philosophy.
“When we say we’re a financially sound city, it’s not just by happenstance,” he said.
Benson said the city for too long focused only on cutting costs, and did not invest in ways to generate new revenue.
A major way Enid has increased revenue and improved its financial standing has been by boosting retail draw to the city.
It’s through increasing retail sales, Benson said, that the city is able to increase its public services and improve public infrastructure.
“No one seems to understand that the vast majority of our core services are paid for through sales tax revenue,” Benson said.
That revenue has shown strong growth in recent years, and Benson said it’s not just because of the booming oil and gas industry.
“We were experiencing double-digit growth in sales tax revenues a year before the oil and gas exploration started here,” Benson said. “Our increase in sales tax doesn’t come about just because we’re at the right place at the right time. When the rest of the country was at the height of the recession, we were still turning a profit.”
Sales tax returns set an all-time high in 2011, only to be shattered with an additional $100 million in retail sales in 2012.
Benson said sales tax returns have grown because of a concerted effort on the part of the city, Enid Regional Development Alliance, Enid Convention and Visitors Bureau, Greater Enid Chamber of Commerce, Main Street Enid and local businesses to make Enid a retail destination.
He said the city has a vested interest in that effort because retail sales pay for public infrastructure.
“Why retail? Because sales tax pays for our streets,” Benson said. “If you don’t have a source of income you don’t have the opportunity to pay for new streets.”
Seeing the potential
Benson said the continued growth in retail sales has enabled the city to invest $42 million in streets in the last five years.
For those who see the potential in Enid, there’s immense opportunity for investment, Benson said.
“Those opportunities are right here under our nose, and the only ones who are taking advantage of it are the people from outside of Enid,” Benson said. “The people that see it coming are going to make piles of cash.”
He said Enid still is held back by locals’ perceptions of their own city, and of its future potential for growth.
“We have long failed to live up to our potential,” he said.
He said Enid routinely outperforms cities like Stillwater in retail sales but still suffers a perception of having less to offer than other towns.
Many people remain resistant to changes or investments that could draw more investment to the city, Benson said.
“Every step of the way we run into the same ‘You’re not from here, you don’t know how we do things’ mentality,” Benson said. “We need to start focusing on and embracing our bright future.
“We have the challenge of overcoming a perception here in Enid, and that’s the perception of mistrust,” Benson said.
He said the community tends to “galvanize around the negative comments,” and become mired in pessimism.
“People don’t understand just how much potential this town has,” Benson said. “This is an extremely capable community, not only financially but intellectually.”
City of Enid director of marketing and public relations Steve Kime said public perceptions of Enid could change drastically if people would look at what Enid has, compared to other cities of its size in Oklahoma.
“If the people of Enid would just get on a bus with me and go visit some other communities in Oklahoma, they’d realize how blessed they are, and how far this community has come,” Kime said. “Numerous communities our size would love to get rid of the plywood on the windows downtown, and have what we have here in Enid.”
Kime said Enid is outperforming other cities its size because of hard work and investment.
“If it was easy everyone would be doing it,” Kime said. “Most communities in Oklahoma don’t have the patience, they don’t have the drive and the vision we have here. Enid is sitting very pretty.”
Looking at expansion
Continuing that drive forward means continuing to invest in the city’s future, Benson said.
He said improving quality of life issues in Enid through the upcoming parks plan vote is the next crucial step. He described the March 5 vote as a “very important juncture in the future of this city.”
Voters will cast ballots on a plan that calls for raising $20 million by increasing the city sales tax rate by one-half cent for five years, and $30 million in general obligation bonds by extending an existing 7 mill ad valorem tax. The proposed plan would renovate all existing parks; build two new neighborhood parks; build a large community park at 30th and Randolph, to include a water park, pool or other water feature; and expand on the city’s trail system.
Benson said the plan goes beyond improving the quality of life for Enid’s residents to upgrading the city’s image for visitors.
“It makes a big statement to every visitor and every potential new business about our commitment to our citizens and our commitment as a community to ourselves,” Benson said.
He said the new community park at 30th and Randolph could help create incentive for new businesses on the city’s east side.
“We can’t develop to the west much more,” Benson said. “We have overrun our infrastructure over there. But, we have a massive opening to expand to the east.”
He said more than 80 percent of the city’s retail sales currently take place on West Garriott between Cleveland and Garland.
“We have massive opportunities up and down Van Buren and east of Van Buren on Garriott,” Benson said. “We have great potential there, and all we need to do is change the prevailing winds.”
Benson said the parks vote is more than a vote on parks — it’s a vote on investing in the city’s future.
“If you believe in it, and you want to invest in yourself and your community, then vote for it,” Benson said. “If not, then vote ‘no,’ and we’ll walk away from it. But, it’s not going to get done.”
Whether the parks plan passes or not, Benson said the city’s future rests on the community’s willingness to move forward.
“We have to embrace our potential as a community,” he said. “We have to believe in ourselves, and be willing to step out of our comfort zone and embrace our opportunities.
“We can return to what we had five, six or 10 years ago in this community or we can continue this ascension to greatness we have going,” Benson said. “We are the economic center of northwest Oklahoma, and that’s a great opportunity for Enid.”