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Passing the buck?


Richard Prawdzienski January 11th, 2007

Send me a dollar. Don't ask why. Don't ask what for; just do it.   In a way, that is what our government says. Yes, the government budget does list categories where our money goes, and we do have a bu...

Send me a dollar. Don't ask why. Don't ask what for; just do it.
 
In a way, that is what our government says. Yes, the government budget does list categories where our money goes, and we do have a bunch of governmental services, but does anyone know how our dollars are spent?
 
Our county treasurer tries to let us know where our real estate taxes go. His letter does show a break out on tax dollar distribution, which is a bit soothing, but the listing is at a high level " it doesn't tell us enough. For example, it doesn't mention the sinking fund.
 
As the county's ad valorem tax distribution letter lay on my desk, I noticed the county was collecting a buck for my home city. Hmm, I wondered, my city already collects more than $2 million in sales taxes each month. What's the deal with this extra dollar?
 
My wife said, "It's only a dollar. Don't sweat the small stuff."
 
Her comment reminded me of a quote attributed to the late Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen " "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."
 
To me, every dollar, whether a Federal Reserve note or a Susan B. Anthony coin, is real money. I assume most taxpayers think a dollar is real money, too.
 
To find out how why the county is collecting this extra dollar, I called my city treasurer. Turns out, the dollar is being collected to pay for a lawsuit. To be specific, for a $258,000 judgment against the city.
 
Two hundred and fifty-eight thousand dollars is real money. How many other tax dollars are going toward lawsuit settlements, I wondered?
 
I checked the Oklahoma County Web site. Getting to their Web page was quick and easy. Trying to find the answer gave me an Excedrin headache.
 
The clerk's page boasted of transparency and contained lots of data links. After an exhausting journey through the Web site, I finally found the sinking fund document I was looking for; a quick tally showed that the county had settled 33 lawsuits totaling over $2 million, not counting legal fees.
 
One recent settlement for the county in the amount of $580,000 raised my eyebrows.
 
Details of settlements like this are not spelled out in the ad valorem tax distribution letter, nor does the tax bill make mention that the settlement usually comes with a 9.25 percent interest payment.
 
My concern is not simply about a dollar or how quickly dollars add up, but instead what the dollar represents.
 
Thirty-three current lawsuits indicate that our government officials are making repeated errors. Two million dollars in settlements for those lawsuits is proof positive that oversight is lacking.
 
So, exactly where are these problem areas?
 
One document, which listed costs of legal services, shows that 88 percent of the costs were attributed to the county sheriff's office. Maybe we should start there?
 
Why weren't our county commissioners monitoring performance? One reason, I am told, is due to a wording conflict between Title 19 and Title 74 of the Oklahoma Statutes. The state ties county commissioners' hands when it comes to asking for performance reports.
 
It gets worse. I heard there is also a conflict between Title 19 and Title 57. Do you know how the county pays for prisoners' pre-existing health problems?  Potentially this second conflict can cost the county another $2 million.
 
No problem: Take out a loan; let 660,000 people share the cost over a number of years. It is only another dollar per person. Who's going to notice a dollar? - Richard Prawdzienski 
  
Prawdzienski is an Edmond resident.
 
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