If local residents thought the battle is over concerning votes for a sales tax, get ready for a new campaign come springtime. That is when Oklahoma County is expected to bring forth an election to impose a new tax on the sales of goods and services.
Just three days after Oklahoma City voters approved extending a one-cent sales tax for various city improvements, the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners held its first meeting concerning renovating or building a new jail. It has been a topic of discussion inside county government for several months, with a keen eye fixed on the MAPS 3 vote. With voter approval of the city’s election, Commission Chairman Ray Vaughn feels good about the county’s sales tax vote attempt.
“I think it bodes well for us,” said Vaughn, who represents District 3 on the board, which comprises the northwest section of the county. “I think it’s indicative of the attitude of the citizens of Oklahoma County that they want to take care of business and grow this city. They want to make sure all aspects of life are taken care of. I see it as a positive.”
While the MAPS 3 vote was held strictly in Oklahoma City, the city takes up most of the county space.
The need for a new jail or renovation of the existing jail is very simple: Build it or they will come. “They” being the U.S. Department of Justice, which last year issued a scathing report about the conditions and management of the jail. After negotiations with county officials, the Justice Department agreed to let the county work out its jail problem. However, if those problems are not fixed soon, the federal government will intervene.
Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel told the commission 47 of the 54 problems identified by the Justice Department have been met or exceeded by the county. The ones remaining deal more with financing, like paying for a new building.
The commission was given a preliminary cost of $350 million to build a new jail. But that did not include costs outside of construction, such as financing fees. County Treasurer Butch Freeman said a half-cent sales tax could raise $57 million over a 12-month period.
Fresh off the MAPS 3 victory, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said the lesson the county can take from the MAPS 3 vote is to build a consensus. But he also said the county will have to do more than just say the money is needed to build a new jail.
“I tend to think the citizens will consider some sort of well-thought-out proposal, but I think they need to see some efficiencies created in some sort of restructuring,” Cornett said. “I’m not an expert on that part of it, but I think it’s critical to the message. I just don’t think you can say, ‘We need more money to fix an existing problem.’ I think you need to say, ‘We are going to create more money and save you money here and here, but even then, it’s going to cost us a little bit more.’ If they can come up with a message like that, I think they will have a fair chance.”
The mayor said he does not have a strong opinion about the jail while final plans are still being drawn.
“It’s very important to me, and I will be involved as much as anybody wants me to,” he said. “But until I’ve seen it, it’s hard to say what type of role I’m willing to play.”
Another important player in a vote could be the Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police. Still stinging from its opposition to MAPS 3, FOP spokesman John George said the union has not decided on a position concerning a potential vote.
While Vaughn feels passage of MAPS 3 bodes well for the county’s efforts, he believed either MAPS 3 outcome could be beneficial.
“If it didn’t pass, that freed up a cent that we could easily fit within,” he said. “If it does pass, I think it’s indicative of people that are encouraged by their local government. They trust their local government leaders; they are optimistic about the future of their city.”
The vote could come between May and August of next year. “Scott Cooper