The Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners voted 3-0 today to ask the state of Oklahoma to help fund the construction of a proposed $300 million new jail.
In the agenda item put forward by District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan, the county will seek $110 million in funds from the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding of the Oklahoma Legislature, which administers the state’s funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for COVID-19 relief.
The requested amount matches the amount county voters are expected to be asked to approve in a bond vote later this year.
But the U.S. Department of Treasury recently issued a final rule that restricts the use of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for the construction of jails or prisons.
Those in favor of building a new jail have hoped to tap into $150 million in funds the county is due to receive from ARPA. It remains unclear how much, if any, of that money might go to the jail construction and whether the ruling will affect the county’s ability to secure the requested state funding.
‘It’s not just focused on the DOC wing anymore’
Commissioners had previously planned to ask the state for $75 million to fund a Department of Corrections wing at the proposed new jail. That wing would house inmates awaiting transfer to one of the DOC’s facilities across the state after sentencing.
Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council executive director Timothy Tardibono said the increased funding request to the state represents a shift in the use of the funding to accommodate the new Treasury Department ruling.
“The switch happened as the final rule came out,” Tardibono told commissioners Tuesday. “The new proposal focuses on the medical-behavioral health portion that goes into the jail. Working with FSB (architects) on their recommendation related to cost and space related to that medical-behavioral health wing, and then with (ARPA consultant) Accenture looking at the new guidelines, we went through the guidelines together after the final rule. They feel comfortable with this request. The reason it’s $110 million is because we’re expanding the amount we’re talking about. It’s not just focused on the DOC wing anymore. It’s now more related to mental-behavioral health that would go into the facility.”
Tardibono said the request from commissioners represents the beginning of what could be a long process.
“The state is going through their process, so this would just be a request to get the conversation started between the Board of County Commissioners and the state,” Tardibono said.
Timing with legislative session important
One major funding component for the new jail is expected to be $110 million in general obligation bonds approved by county voters. District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert said she has concerns about asking the state to match that funding at this point.
“We would be asking the state for a match, but we haven’t gone out for a bond vote yet to the people, and we also haven’t taken action on our county ARPA funds,” Blumert said.
Tardibono said the timing of the request was made to align with the schedule of the Oklahoma Legislature, which holds its annual regular session from February through May.
“It’s just a matter of they are about to start session,” Tardibono said. “They wanted this two weeks ago, actually, and so we realized, as a county you all still have a process to go through, and the voter still has a process to go through, so the timing would all come together toward the end of the legislative session, presuming the voters approve the bond. Then that would give the Legislature the understanding of what the county is putting into it.”
Blumert said she remains conflicted about the use of county ARPA money for the jail.
“I do appreciate Timothy and a few others reaching out to me about this and having conversations about it and tweaking what was brought a few weeks ago,” Blumert said. “I do feel conflicted. I know that the final rule on ARPA money came out and sort of forced us to re-look at ways this money can legally be spent. You all know me, I wanted to send some of this money out into the community, but I know we also need a new jail. So that’s where I’m conflicted.”
‘It will tell us where we stand’
Maughan said the state’s response to the request for funding will provide clarity for the future of the project.
“It will tell us where we stand,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure out a coalition of partners to figure out this ultimate solution anyway.”
Maughan said the state’s involvement could also help with the jail’s status with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I think we’ve all campaigned on trying to do something about the jail,” Maughan said. “This may not be the perfect, it may not be the ultimate, it may not be the final, but it’s a conversation-starter. And what I’m excited about is, for the first time in many years, there’s a real serious conversation being held at the commission to address it, and not just talk about it anymore but actually try to take it on and fix it, or at least dramatically improve the situation we have now. Which, it’s not just us coming up with this and saying we should do it. Let’s not forget the Department of Justice has been reviewing us since 2008.”
In 2009, a Department of Justice report leveled harsh criticism of the jail’s staffing, overcrowding and medical care of the facility. It found 60 civil rights violations at the jail during the course of the investigation.