Spend any time around Oklahoma County politics, and Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel can make a clear case on why a new county jail is needed. The jail, according to Whetsel, is the state’s largest mental health facility, the state’s largest restaurant and the largest hotel (in a matter of speaking).
However, two central questions need to be addressed: First, why do we need a new jail; and second, when will we vote on it? I will leave the necessity of the jail to another time, but my focus is when will we get a chance to vote on it? This is a serious, challenging issue, and we have been talking about a new jail almost as soon as the first criminal escaped through a window.
The Oklahoma County Jail Finding Task Force has met many times, viewing options, hearing different solutions and having estimates as high as $350 million. All Oklahoma property owners should have a real problem with the price tag that would cause property taxes to rise to an uncomfortable level, especially for those on fixed incomes.
Why the delay?
A 2009 Oklahoma Gazette/News 9 poll showed that almost half of all respondents were not in favor of any funding mechanism, regardless if it was a property tax or sales tax.
Oklahomans have a plethora of state questions on the ballot this November, but the biggest issue for Oklahoma County property owners will not be one of them. According to state law, for any question to be added to a ballot, it needs to be presented and approved 60 days before the election date. The only problem is Oklahoma County officials can’t seem to agree on what type of package to present to the taxpayers, and when to have the election.
Why burden the cost of an additional ballot/election onto the taxpayers unless they are already going to the polls? An argument given to me by an Oklahoma County commissioner was that there would be more time and people could focus on the issue.
True, having one question on the ballot would allow people to really think about the issue, but can the voters not think about one issue at a time? I think voters can handle many issues, but the question has to be asked: Is it worth it to have a special election with just one question on the ballot?
Oklahoma County officials have a tough job in that the federal government has forced their hand. I would lean more toward tent city-style prisons versus a whole new complex; however, the county commissioners seem to have taxpayers in mind in that they don’t want a huge property tax increase. Heading into any election year, that would be deadly. The commissioners have inherited many problems, namely a jail that does not work and has more problems than cells. The price tag and higher taxes are always going to be an uphill battle. I just think more voters should have the opportunity to vote on it.
Determining when the election is held is important, and I think having a small election with little turnout does not give a mandate or have the force of a general or regularly scheduled election. Power to the people. The more people who vote, the better.
Loveless is the CEO of Phoenix Consulting and the business manager for Loveless Orthopedic and Custom Footwear.