If Oklahoma County residents approve a $260 million bond proposal in the June 28 election, the push to build a new county jail will clear a major hurdle. But even if that facility is eventually built, there could be plenty of problems ahead.
The bond provides no funding for the ongoing maintenance of what would be a $297 million new facility — a total that does not include financing costs, which could tack on significantly more over the life of the bonds.
Maintenance has been a major problem for the current Oklahoma County Jail. Since it opened, in 1991, there has been a continual backlog of needed repairs, including HVAC and plumbing systems that were troublesome long before the county received $10 million in CARES Act funds to fix them last year.
Some of those problems have been outlined in a series of scathing reports by federal and state agencies that have inspected the facility.
“What maintenance?” Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority trust member Ben Brown said when asked about the maintenance done at the facility before the trust took over management of the jail from the Sheriff’s Department.
Brown said the 32-year-old building is still yielding surprises, decades after it opened.
“We’re still finding things that were never fixed, maybe since it opened,” he said. “Just two weeks ago, there was a water outlet, a hydrant, that was supposed to be routinely flushed and checked. This one had never been flushed. It was stopped up and it had to be flushed with high pressure. The fire system is green-tagged, and it hadn’t been for many years. Just little things like that have come up that have finally been fixed.”
Oklahoma County spends about $33 million annually to operate and maintain the jail, making it one of the largest single items on the $176 million county budget. District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert said maintenance at the jail has never been properly funded, however.
“When the current jail was built, it was paid for with a one-cent sales tax that was only for capital expenses,” Blumert said. “There was nothing set aside for maintenance. The plan at that time was to pay for it with intergovernmental contracts with the state and the federal government. But those contracts dried up because of how poorly the jail was designed and built. So that money started coming out of the general fund, and that’s more or less how it is today.”
Avoiding mistakes of the past
The bond issue faces some opposition. Sean Cummings, a local restaurant owner and a member of the Village City Council, opposes the new jail in part because he believes those operating it are incompetent.
“I’m a father of five kids,” Cummings told county commissioners at a meeting earlier this month. “Each kid, when they turned 16, my wife and I would get them a ‘beater’ car. You give it to your kids to see if they can manage the car and handle the maintenance. You all gave a beater car to the jail trust that was not managed properly and was underfunded and wasn’t taken care of. And the jail trust managed to make it worse. Much like my kids, they ran it without oil, and they didn’t do scheduled maintenance and the thing is getting worse and worse, and now we have a death every two weeks. The difference between you all and me is I don’t go buy my kid a Maserati after they don’t take care of the car. You all want to give Maserati to people who have done worse with the jail than the sheriff did.”
Cummings is part of a group of criminal justice reform activists who oppose the proposed new jail, but people outside that sphere are also asking the same questions.
Wish there was a permanent funding source for maintenance of a new facility. That’s what got us in our current facility mess. We built a jail 30+ years ago with no way to maintain it, are we repeating history? Voters will decide.https://t.co/tGh4i2nORP
— Mark Myers (@MarkMyersOK) April 4, 2022
Blumert said maintenance has never been a priority at the jail.
“Maintenance has always been an issue but never a priority,” she said. “Here we are in 2022 and there is still about 15 years of deferred maintenance with the jail. I was vocal about sending CARES money to the jail to fix the water system. You don’t hear about the jail flooding anymore. So we’ve been able to fix some things that were long overdue with that money, but it hasn’t been nearly enough to fix everything.”
‘There’s no way it would get like it was’
While county leaders have said they are committed to making sure a new jail doesn’t fall into disrepair, it seems there is little more than a commitment at this stage.
Jail trust member Ben Brown understands that citizens have questions about how a new and expensive county asset like a jail would be cared for once it is built, given the history of the current jail.
Election date set for funding new Oklahoma County Jail by Matt Patterson
“The new jail will be a long time coming, if it comes,” Brown said. “I think it’s certainly my intention, and I think with the current level of oversight, that there’s no way it would get like it was, which happened because there wasn’t a lot of oversight during those years.”
District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan said county leaders expect the new facility will save the money in the long run, thanks in large part to its design. While the design has not been finalized, it will not be a 13-story tower reliant on three elevators, as the current facility is.
“We’re expecting to realize a few million in savings annually off the staffing and energy usage created by the new facility that I think will go a long way toward maintenance,” he said.
Maughan said the current jail wasn’t built for efficiency.
“I think when you look at the amount of inefficiency — not only with the utility costs but also the staff costs that the design of the jail requires with the tower — that it doesn’t take long to add up the benefits of a new facility,” Maughan said.
Tim Tardibono, executive director of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, said the way the jail has operated for years, with a population that increased for years, is part of the problem.
“If you build a house for a family of four or six but you have 18 people living there, well, you’re going to have some maintenance issues,” Tardibono said. “In a new facility, the population will be within the limits it was designed for, which is in stark contrast to what we have now.”
Tardibono said the new facility will be cheaper to operate.
“It will be more cost-effective to run a new facility,” he said. “We actually think there will be a savings in the new facility. I don’t think people realize how deficient things are relative to what you would expect from a normal building of the same age.”
While there is some opposition to the proposed new jail and its $297 million price tag, and there are questions about who will manage it when or if it ever opens, Maughan believes this is the county’s best shot at addressing the problems with the jail in a substantive way.
“You never want to take anything for granted, but I’m telling you this is the first pragmatic proposal I’ve seen since we’ve been commissioners that addresses the jail,” Maughan said. “It’s taken a long time and a lot of hard work and moving parts to get here, but now we’re in a place to do it.”
District 1 County Commissioner Kevin Calvey, who sits on the jail trust and who is also running for Oklahoma County District Attorney, did not respond to email and voicemail messages from NonDoc regarding the situation.