TULSA, Okla. — The day after Dewey Bartlett Jr. won a second term as Tulsa mayor last year, he was asked about the estimated $6.4 million budget shortfall the city was dealing with at the time. Bartlett replied then that he thought Oklahoma's second-largest city could manage its way out of the deficit hole through shrewd budgeting, a hiring freeze and consolidating various city-owned properties.
He also made another pledge: no layoffs or furloughs for city employees.
Only a few months later, the budget shortfall has widened to around $10 million, largely due to several months of sluggish sales tax returns, and budget gurus and city councilors alike are getting antsy about the tough decisions that might have to be made — layoffs included — before the fiscal year ends June 30.
And, if they're fretting about getting this fiscal year in the black and in the books, many of the same city employees are just coming to terms with the prospect of planning the 2015 budget, which most assuredly will come with layoffs and deep cuts in some city services.
"I've heard all sorts of big numbers there" on what the projected shortfall will be, said Councilman G.T. Bynum. "To be honest with you, I've heard so many numbers."
Some fear that if the cuts do come, either this year or the next, the dismissals will be like sawing into bone because the hiring freeze implemented by the city has left many positions vacant, employees say.
"We have a lot of vacancies, but at some point where we're going to start letting go some staffers, we'll be in a world of hurt," said Mike Kier, the city's director of finance.
As one fiscal crisis dovetails into another for the northeastern Oklahoma city of 400,000, Bartlett tiptoes around the same kind of budget question he was posed in November, hours after his victory speech: Do you anticipate any job cuts this year?
"I don't anticipate layoffs," Bartlett replied in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "Our goal is no layoffs and no furloughs — that's our goal."
The semantics of those last three words — that's our goal — suggests things may get dicey at City Hall.
But in his very next sentence, Bartlett spells out the facts: "We haven't seen much improvement in our revenue receipts, which makes things a little difficult."
That's why Bartlett's asked department heads to come back to him with more efficient ways of doing business; why there's a perpetual hiring freeze and why the city is still looking to unload unused or underutilized properties to consolidate — even its own tony digs inside the modern and highly-visible glass-walled cube downtown.
"We need to be as aggressive as possible to avoid layoffs," Bartlett said.
The mayor has been in these budget situations before. He's credited with steering City Hall through the recession and shoring up finances during his first term, and promised similar feats of economic know-how while campaigning for a second term. One of the first tasks Bartlett had before him in 2009 was an immediate need to shave $10 million from the budget.
"People that might not have wanted to see me elected, some people, unfortunately, they thrive on bad news and enjoy putting out bad news," Bartlett said, sounding a bit defensive. "I'm just not that way and most Tulsans are not that way.
"Every day is not a doom and gloom day," he said.
Bynum, the councilman, said the mayor and council are working on the 2015 budget, and have already come up with an important caveat — suggesting it could be yet another budget bleed in fiscal 2015 — if there are to be layoffs, they won't come from the police department.
"Cuts to police, police layoffs, are not on the table for consideration," Bynum said. "Everything else is."