The Oklahoma Board of County Commissioners has set Tuesday, June 28, 2022, as the election date for a bond proposal to help fund a new Oklahoma County Jail. (Pablo Angulo)

The Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners today set a June 28 election date for a proposed $260 million bond package that would be used to construct a new Oklahoma County Jail. In doing so, the commissioners put the ultimate fate of the project in the hands of county residents.

The general obligation bonds would provide the bulk of the proposed new jail’s funding. Previously, seeking state-dedicated American Rescue Plan Act funds from the Oklahoma Legislature had been considered for a sizable chunk of the proposed funding package, but under the proposition unanimously approved by the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners at its Monday meeting, that portion has been shifted to bonds.

Decision day will come on an already busy political day in Oklahoma. The June 28 election date already includes several Republican primary races of note: the Oklahoma County District Attorney race, legislative races, and a slew of statewide races such as governor, state superintendent of public instruction, attorney general and, most notably, two GOP primaries for U.S. Senate seats, one of which is an open race owing to Sen. Jim Inhofe’s retirement.

In all, the crowded ballot will likely drive significant turnout among GOP voters in Oklahoma County.

Commissioners praise plan

A slide from an Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council presentation outlines the selected option for a new Oklahoma County Jail. (Screenshot)

The proposed new Oklahoma County Jail is expected to cost $297 million. But the bonds also come with an interest rate up to 10 percent over the course of their 30-year-life, commissioners said.

The Oklahoma Criminal Justice Advisory Council has led the study of funding proposals for a new jail. Executive director Tim Tardibono told NonDoc that Oklahoma County’s direct apportionment of ARPA funds could still make up some of the new jail’s funding package, but he said new county bond revenue estimates came in higher than initially anticipated, which will reduce dependency on ARPA funds to construct the jail. Tardibono said revenue-backed bonds — which can carry more risk than general obligation bonds — may also be considered if more money is needed to fund the project.

District 3 Commissioner Kevin Calvey, who also sits on the jail trust (called the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority) and who is currently running for Oklahoma County District Attorney, said Monday’s decision was as important as any in recent memory for the county.

“This is a historic day,” Calvey said before commissioners voted to set the June 28 election. “This is the biggest decision county government has made in years, if not decades. Probably over 20 years. We have a window of opportunity that this may be the only chance we have to improve the situation that is the current facility.”

Calvey said the current downtown jail is unsalvageable.

“You can’t fix 13 stories,” he said. “Just the design alone. There are many things in that jail that are just not fixable. It costs far more to operate than a better-designed jail. The jail we’re looking at is commensurate with other jails of communities our size. This is the reason why I ran for this office: to improve the situation at the jail.”

District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert said county residents are ready to act on fixing the jail.

“When I’m out knocking on doors and talking to voters, the majority of voters want us to fix this,” she said. “They’re just tired of hearing about how awful that building is. So like Commissioner Calvey, when I ran for this seat, that was a huge goal of mine, to figure this out. This is like moving the Titanic. We’re pushing a huge thing in a big direction, and I’m supporting this because I can’t sit here and not do anything about the current building. It does not meet our needs at all. We have to do better.”

District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan said the bonds were a better way to fund a new facility than previous attempts, some of which included a sales tax proposal.

“I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix this especially with how we’re trying to go about doing it without going to the taxpayers and asking them for a sales tax, which has been the frequently bandied about proposal in years past (and) which voters didn’t indicate they were willing to embrace,” Maughan said. “This continues on the (bond) rate that was previously agreed to by the voters.”

In a statement, Tardibono said it is time to solve a 30-year problem.

“This is the next step in the process of solving this problem and we are hopeful that Oklahoma County taxpayers will support this move and keep the process moving forward,” Tardibono said. “This vote is a vote to support public safety and to allow the community to solve this problem all without a property or sales tax increase.”

Jail trust acknowledges election date

While the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority has no role in determining funding packages and calling elections, chairman Jim Couch did briefly discuss the new jail at its regular monthly meeting Monday afternoon.

This is a bit of a unique time for the county to be able to use an expiring ad valorem jail bond issue that is out there and be able to issue [bonds] without increasing the previously authorized rate of mill levy out there,” Couch said. “So that is important, and to take the opportunity that has arose at this time is a good thing to do.”

Others present were less enthusiastic. Several members of the public spoke out against the proposed new jail and its primary funding mechanism. Sean Cummings has been a frequent critic of the jail trust and the proposed new jail. He criticized interest rates Monday afternoon.

Everyone acts like money is free,” Cummings told the trust. “(On) $26 million a year for 30 years, that’s $780 million in interest. That’s what they just agreed to put on the ballot. That’s a billon dollar jail that can’t be run by the people that got the free jail. You guys are incompetent. I’m sorry. I actually like a bunch of you, but you’re incompetent. Please step down and put someone competent in charge.”

Criminal justice activist Mark Faulk, another longtime critic of the trust, said the idea is a bad one.

“This proposal says 10 percent interest,” Faulk said. “That’s a crappy interest rate for a home loan, much less for a bond issue. We’re on track for 24 deaths in that jail this year. If you build a new jail, it will not get rid of the bed bugs, it will not get rid of the black mold, it will not get rid of the fentanyl that’s snuck into that jail every day.”