The effort to fund and build a new Oklahoma County Jail is facing turbulence as leaders tinker with methods to fund the project amid evolving federal guidelines on the use of coronavirus relief funds.

After some discussion at this morning’s meeting, the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners struck an item from its agenda regarding an application for funds from the joint committee of the Oklahoma Legislature that is overseeing distribution of certain American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

The agenda item, requested by District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan, would have asked commissioners to discuss and possibly take action on seeking $75 million from the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding. Currently, Oklahoma has about $1.8 billion in ARPA funds awaiting allocation.

Oklahoma County itself is expected to receive about $150 million in ARPA funds directly, but Monday’s agenda item dealt with the possibility of requesting additional ARPA money to help cover costs of the proposed new jail. The Oklahoma County Jail houses inmates who are awaiting transfer to Oklahoma Department of Corrections facilities. At times, that population can include several hundred people, which would be the stated justification for seeking the additional state portion.

“That’s part of what I wanted to talk about because of the number of people awaiting to be transferred,” Maughan said during Monday’s meeting. “It affects our population as far as the fire marshal is concerned, and of course just dealing with that many bodies in the building, but it’s not among the things we have control over because we’re just waiting on DOC, which has become more complicated as staffing has become an issue for them also.”

Brian Maughan
Incumbent Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan speaks during a debate hosted by NonDoc on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (Pablo Angulo)

Final guidelines released

On Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department released its latest set of guidelines on the use of ARPA funds.

According to a report in the Montgomery Advertiser, the new guidelines don’t consider jail or prison construction an acceptable use of ARPA funds, but that the federal agency would likely not take action to enforce those provisions if local and state governments had already started spending ARPA funds on those projects.

That use of ARPA funds has become controversial in Alabama, where some state officials are proposing a $400 million prison funded by ARPA monies.

Proposed DOC wing sparks disagreement

Oklahoma County Commissioner Carrie Blumert speaks at a National Voter Registration Day event at Wheeler Park on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Michael Duncan)

During discussion Monday, Maughan said the federal guidelines came out after the item was placed on the agenda. Maughan said he has been in discussions with the county’s consultant on ARPA funds since the new guidelines were released.

The county recently hired Accenture, a business management consulting firm, to assist the commission in navigating ARPA guidelines.

“After we put this item on the agenda, the new Treasury guidelines came out,” Maughan said. “I think the proper thing to do is to go back and redraw this. That’s just from my standpoint. I think there are new talking points that I think we can put on there with those Treasury guidelines.

“I have been in conversation with legislative leaders, and they were open to this, so I thought it was worth us putting in a request. Obviously, we can’t officially ask the state for anything unless this board has first agreed to it.”

District 3 Commissioner Kevin Calvey was not present at Monday’s meeting. His deputy, Myles Davidson, said asking the state to help fund the jail was a good idea.

“I think it’s very logic-based when moving forward with something like this,” Davidson said. “With Oklahoma County being one of the largest contributors to the Department of Corrections, having the ability to separate those individuals not only with COVID, but any future pandemic, having that ability, and bringing the state on as partners for that makes a lot of sense moving forward.”

District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert said she does not support the request for state funding.

I do agree that it’s a team effort,” Blumert said. “We need to have sources of funds from multiple areas. What I can’t support is a DOC wing on our jail. That just doesn’t sit right with me. I support MAPS 4 mental health (funding), which will not be used for a jail, so I’m very open to having different funding sources for the jail, but I just can’t support a DOC wing.”

Maughan said the proposed new jail won’t happen without a variety of sources in funding, before acknowledging the possibility the project could ultimately become derailed.

“The whole way the funding works is to have a coalition of funders,” Maughan said Monday. “There’s not any one pot big enough to underwrite the entire expenditure. This is to say how it would work. If we got [the state’s ARPA] award and if we weren’t able to pass a bond or we weren’t able to come up the other funds available from the other things discussed or mentioned, the whole project is probably put on hold.”

Blumert said she wasn’t comfortable moving forward with a request to the state so early in the process.

I have some concerns with asking for matching funds from the state when we have not gone out to a bond vote yet,” Blumert said. “I don’t want to count on those monies until it’s for sure, so I think I have some concerns. And maybe the wording needs to be different.”

Project would tap into several funding streams

While its location and final design have yet to be selected, the proposed new $300 million jail would tap into a variety of funding sources for its construction. Options include the county’s allocation of ARPA funds, which could total up to $150 million. Commissioners are also expected to ask county voters to approve up to $110 million in general obligation bonds. Another option could be a further $200 million could be raised through revenue anticipation bonds and lease purchase bonds.

Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council executive director Tim Tardibono said after Monday’s meeting that the $150 million in ARPA funds the county might have available to use on the jail has been an estimate.

“We always knew the $150 million ARPA estimate was preliminary based on the final rule being released and the county ARPA consultant being hired,” Tardibono said. “But CJAC and (our consultant) FSB had to move forward on putting the proposal together because we didn’t know when the White House would release that final guidance and cities, counties and states were already spending funds based on that interim rule.”

Tardibono said some aspects of the jail’s construction can still be classified as an acceptable use of ARPA funds under the guidelines.

“There are specific citations as to why the medical and mental health wings were ARPA eligible, in our opinion, so now we’ve got to go through the 400-page document with the consultant and see what the new rules are and how what we’ve proposed fits in,” Tardibono said.

MAPS 4 enters the chat

During an interview with KWTV on Friday, Maughan also suggested approaching the City of Oklahoma City to possibly tap into MAPS 4 funds to help construct the proposed new jail.

“We’re also engaging with some grants and also with Oklahoma City, with the MAPS 4 (package) that (people) voted for a mental health facility,” Maughan said. “We are appealing, or we will be appealing, to the City Council to see if they can combine with us.”

When the MAPS 4 sales tax extension passed in December 2019, it included about $40 million in funding dedicated to mental health and substance abuse facilities.

Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt poured cold water on Maughan’s suggestion Sunday.


Blumert also expressed opposition to the idea of using MAPS 4 money for a new jail.