Oklahoma County Officials Meet to Discuss Possible Jail Tax

Friday, December 11th 2009, 6:49 pm
By: News 9

By Dave Jordan, NEWS 9

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Last year, the department of justice removed about 160 federal inmates after officials ruled conditions inside the Oklahoma County jail were substandard. However, jail officials are hoping to remedy the problem by looking for ways to pay for new or improved facility.

On Friday, members of the Oklahoma County Commissioners came together specifically to discuss whether it would be cheaper to tax county residents or sell bonds to raise money needed for the jail. No decision has been made, but what is clear is that Oklahomans are going to pay for this new facility.

The Department of Justice threatened a takeover of the Oklahoma County Jail if the necessary changes aren't made in a timely fashion. That could end up costing county residents in the short term.

"It would be huge. I think huge would be the best word I could use. You're going to see an incredible change on your ad valorem tax bill if you live in Oklahoma County," said Forrest "Butch" Freeman, Oklahoma County Treasurer.

The cost of a new facility, estimated to be about $400 million, would have to be paid back within 3 years if the feds took over the project. That is why the prospect of a tax is much more appealing to county commissioners.

"This is about public safety and it's stuff we've got to do. Government's fundamental purpose is public safety," said Ray Vaughn, Commissioner-District 3.

But there are concerns about a potential $90 million of additional costs with building the new facility.

"I'm totally against any kind of property tax increase personally, so that leaves a sales tax as our only other viable alternative," said Brian Maughan, Commissioner-District 2. "I'm interested in finding out what those expenditures would be specifically before making a decision."

Sheriff John Whetsel said those costs would pay for itself over time with a new jail, which would be called Greenfield. Whetsel said he is in favor of building a new jail rather than renovating or retrofitting the existing one.

"I think for me it's a no brainer. The Greenfield site is the way this county should go," Whetsel said.

A new site for the jail has not been decided or even scouted.

Commissioners are now working to draft a resolution by March 11 so that voters will have a chance to vote on a tax in May. One proposal being considered is a half-cent sales tax that could raise about $57 million a year. Commissioners said they'll discuss this further in their regularly scheduled meeting next Wednesday.

More on News9.com: Voters May Be Asked to Approve Tax for Oklahoma County Jail