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New report slaps needed county jail overhaul with huge price tag


Scott Cooper August 6th, 2009

The election season draws nearer every day, with city and county officials hoping voter fatigue doesn't set in early. Through most of the spring and summer, Oklahoma City leaders have been hi...

County-Jail-Aerial-SC

The election season draws nearer every day, with city and county officials hoping voter fatigue doesn't set in early.

Through most of the spring and summer, Oklahoma City leaders have been hitting the public relations button to gear up citizens for another taxpayer-funded improvement package. Dubbed MAPS 3, the proposal costing hundreds of millions of dollars should go to the voting public in December.

BETTER TIMING
GAINING WEIGHT
CAMPAIGN

But just as the city prepped the public for supporting tax-funded projects, Oklahoma County officials unveiled their plans to seek public support for a new jail. Both city and county leaders are hopeful all will be well.

"We've been working both with the (Greater Oklahoma City) Chamber of Commerce and Oklahoma City to coordinate our respective needs," said District 3 County Commissioner Ray Vaughn. "We have been involved early on with the MAPS 3 projects and its timing. We respect each other's ideas and needs with going to the public to address them."

BETTER TIMING
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett understands the county's needs and, while supportive, wishes the timing were better.

"In a perfect world, you would want to be the only referendum or initiative that anybody was talking about, but that's not realistic," Cornett said. "There are all these governmental entities trying to position themselves for some sort of funding. There's never an opportunity to be all by yourself. It just doesn't work that way."

Both projects are still in the planning stages, but the county already knows what would be funded " a new jail. Talk of a new jail, or expanding or renovating the current jail, has been ongoing for nearly a decade. But a sense of urgency is hitting the county.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scornful report concerning the jail that criticized the management and layout of the building. The department warned the county if changes were not made a lawsuit would follow that could put the jail in the hands of the federal government, which could ask for mandates to be funded.

GAINING WEIGHT
If that scenario becomes reality, county property owners may find their tax bills gaining weight.

"We've got to pretty much do this or risk the fact that the Department of Justice will do it for us," Vaughn said.

The first price tag given for a new jail was just under $400 million, which gave county officials sticker shock and forced them to go back and redraw a new jail. If a plan is agreed upon, Vaughn said the county is looking at holding a vote sometime between March and May.

"There are a number of issues that could weigh in on that. One is the results of the MAPS vote, the other being the attitude of the Department of Justice and our ability to have a consensus among the commissioners as to what we want to present."

With a possible MAPS 3 vote toward the end of the year, the county should get a good feel for the mindset of local voters. The city's ambition revolves around three key issues that are dominating the project's plans: transportation, a huge city park and a new convention center. Cornett has said this MAPS price tag would run somewhere between the first two MAPS initiatives, putting the cost around $500 million.

Because the city doesn't want to label MAPS a tax increase, the vote has to come before the end of the year so the current MAPS tax is merely extended. That is a luxury the county will not have with its sales tax proposal.

CAMPAIGN
Although a county jail vote could come as much as five months after the city's election, the
discussion will take place throughout the MAPS campaign.

"I think it's a distraction and I don't think it helps getting people's attention," for the MAPS proposal, Cornett said. "But it's inevitable; it's going to be something, or it would be something else. That's the way I look at it."

However, there is precedent for both the city and county. Starting in late fall of 2007 and running through spring of 2008, voters in Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County approved four major projects ranging from school improvements to professional basketball.

In October 2007, voters gave the OK for a $248 million school bond issue, which paid for new classrooms, gymnasiums and technology. Two months later, the thumbs up was given for various city projects, like street and bridge repairs, costing a total of $835.5 million.

The following March, city patrons had no problem extending a one-cent sales tax to pay for renovations at the Ford Center for the purpose of bringing in an NBA team to the tune of $121 million. And two months after that vote, the county got the go ahead to spend $55 million to purchase the vacant General Motors plant and then lease it to Tinker Air Force Base.

"MAPS initiatives have been about transformation " transforming Oklahoma City to a new level," said Roy Williams, president of the Chamber of Commerce. "Infrastructure needs like incarceration facilities must also be dealt with, which we have done so in the past with bond issues and other financing vehicles. We believe the voters understand this and will seek solutions to both." "Scott Cooper

 
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