County officials hope to measure public sentiment toward a sales tax increase to fund jail improvements 

Oklahoma County voters could see a proposal for a sales tax increase to pay for a new jail sometime next year, and polling by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber on such a measure may begin as early as December.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division issued a scathing report on the Oklahoma County jail in 2008, stating that the facility failed to provide the prisoners reasonable protection from harm, constitutionally required mental health services, and adequate housing, sanitation, environmental and fire-safety protections.

At the time of inspection in 2007, the DOJ wrote that the jail was understaffed and at more than double its capacity, contributing to several deaths and a high level of violence at the facility.

In November 2009, Oklahoma County entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Justice Department, stating that the county had four years to house inmates in a facility meeting minimum constitutional standards, meaning the county had to expand, renovate or build a new jail.

Failure to make the corrections, the memo stated, would result in the Justice Department taking over the facility through a court order.

While tentative plans to pay for a new jail revolve around a sales tax increase of not more than 1 percent, a DOJ takeover and resulting cost of improvements would likely be funded by a three-year increase in county ad valorem taxes by 20 percent to 23 percent, said County Commissioner Ray Vaughn.

Estimates of expanding or renovating the jail are around $436 million, and Vaughn said the estimated cost of a new jail would be around $350 million.

The Oklahoma County jail, a 13-story building located on about 5 acres downtown, was built in 1991, but soon became the subject of criticism when some inmates escaped by using bedsheets to rappel the structure shortly after it opened.

"The building itself just wasn't built right," said Rick Buchanan, Vaughn's chief deputy. "It was a joke from day one."

Oklahoma County is one of only two counties in the state that does not have a sales tax dedicated to jail funding, Buchanan said, despite the facility being the largest and most occupied in the state.

A majority of the deficiencies found by the Justice Department have been corrected by Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel, Vaughn and Buchanan said, but a new facility still must be built to comply with the memorandum of understanding.

Early plans for a new jail, Vaughn said, cuts between 11 and 12 stories off the facility, and would place it on 60 to 80 acres of land.

Vaughn said it is preferred that a new jail be within 5 miles of the Oklahoma County Courthouse, but it would not be a deal-breaker to have it farther away. Finding a location should not be too difficult, he said, but finding the votes to pass such a measure may be another story.

The county, which cannot spend money for polling purposes, will likely employ the help of the Greater Oklahoma City Area Chamber to gauge citizen sentiment toward a sales tax that would fund a new jail, Vaughn said, noting that the results of last week's election were the first steps in getting a sense of direction on voter sentiment.

"I believe the outcome of the election will give us some sense of direction, not only for the country, but the economy," he said. "I think the economy's going to have to improve significantly before we can reasonably anticipate going to the public and asking their support to build this facility."

Vaughn said, depending on the poll, voters could see a measure on the jail next year. However, if the poll shows results that do not bode well for such a measure, all bets are off.

"If we get some indication that there would be a potentially positive result, we'll move ahead, probably with the setting of an election date sometime next year," he said, adding that if the outcome is not positive, "either we will have to rethink what it is we're asking for with regard the project or postpone until a better time. But at some point, we're going to have to get the issue on the ballot. The Department of Justice isn't going to let us sit forever."

above, from left County Commissioner Ray Vaughn and Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel

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