Following a terse and at times awkward exchange with Oklahoma County Clerk David Hooten, the Oklahoma County Board of County Commissioners took no action on a proposed K-9 training center to be operated by a nonprofit co-founded by former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer.
Hooten requested the item be placed on Monday’s meeting agenda for discussion. It called for the approval of up to $25 million in county American Rescue Plan Act funds to be spent on the construction of a K-9 training center to be run by Ground Zero, a nonprofit that trains dogs for search and rescue efforts. Ground Zero was founded in 2017 by Barry and Becky Switzer.
Hooten is currently running for state treasurer, and Barry Switzer donated the maximum $2,900 to Hooten’s primary campaign in August. According to a report by KWTV, Switzer has appeared in digital video ads supporting Hooten, who is also an accomplished trumpet player. Hooten performed at a Donald Trump fundraiser hosted by the Switzers in Norman in 2016.
“I put this on the agenda mainly because the budget board approved this for funding on July 15,” Hooten told commissioners Monday. “It’s for a tremendous possibility to have (a) Ground Zero Emergency Training Center, which most of you know trains K-9s to rescue humans and works with fire and police. To have this in Oklahoma County and to be the cornerstone for the whole United States and the world would be a tremendous opportunity for this county to have started, so I respectfully put it on here for discussion.”
Calvey: It’s too soon to fund project
District 3 Commissioner Kevin Calvey — who has endorsed Hooten for state treasurer — praised Ground Zero before saying it was too early to allocate funds to the organization.
“We want to see what we’re doing with ARPA funds. We have a good plan rather than piecemeal things out one project at a time, especially a suggestion in that amount which I think is going to be more than any entity will receive,” Calvey said. “So I would have a concern about approving the item at this time. That is in no way a reflection of the work Ground Zero Foundation does or the possibility of something in the future at a lesser amount, but I would have a concern about it at this time.”
Hooten, who does not typically speak at Board of County Commissioner meetings, shot back, citing the earlier approval of ARPA funds to be spent on the project by the Oklahoma County Budget Board.
“I understand that, but realize this is the very first thing that we approved for ARPA funds to be used and we have hired a company that has been working with the chief deputies of the BOCC,” Hooten said. “I have not met with them in person. I’ve tried to. But I will remind you the entire Budget Board did approve this, except, I know, (Commissioner) Carrie (Blumert) you didn’t. It was 8-1, but of course you know that. It was up to $25 million. It doesn’t mean it’s $25 million. That was for your discretion.”
District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert echoed Calvey, citing the need for a more coherent long-term plan for use of the ARPA funds and the current involvement of Accenture, the consulting firm hired by the county to assist in understanding ARPA spending guidelines.
“I think I have to agree with Commissioner Calvey that I know the Budget Board voted on it last summer, but now that we have Accenture on board and we’re trying to put together a plan for the $154 million, I would prefer to wait on voting on individual items,” Blumert said. “But if you all know me you know that I love dogs more than probably anyone. If I see a dog on the street I have to say ‘Hi’ to it. I have two dogs of my own, and I have two friends who volunteer for Ground Zero, and they love it. But I agree that for me it’s premature. If we are going to allocate money to this organization, I would like it to be part of a larger plan that we vote on with all of the funds.”
Hooten: ‘You all have already approved $10 million to spend’
Hooten pressed further, again citing the Budget Board vote to approve AARPA funds for the training center.
“Thank you for those comments,” Hooten said. “I’ll just also say that you all have already approved $10 million to spend. How is that not piecemealing it out?”
District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan — who has also donated to Hooten — said the chief priority of the Budget Board is the jail, not a new dog training center.
“That’s just what’s been cleared as we’ve been in all these briefing meetings, and that’s been explained,” Maughan told Hooten. “And also, the Budget Board has entirely voted on making the jail a priority and so we are obviously doing everything we can with the existing funds as the first priority to shore up the jail. We have a very important vote coming up on June 28. We’re asking the public to come forward with an amount of money that is not enough, so we’re going to have to have additional funds.”
Hooten then asked if the proposed $310 million bond issue on June 28 was going to be enough for the new jail before being corrected.
“It’s actually for $260 million,” Blumert said.
Calvey then sought to shift the discussion back to the present.
“I think we’re getting far afield on the agenda item,” Calvey said.
Maughan and Calvey told Hooten that the Budget Board doesn’t have the final say when it comes to ARPA funds.
“I’m just pointing out for all this talk about, ‘The Budget Board signed off on it,’ the Budget Board has also signed off on this other deal,” Maughan said. “We’ve had multiple meetings, Mr. Hooten, where you have been invited to attend, and if you had been in these briefings and these calls that your staff has been involved in, you know, we also need to discover if the law allows for this. We have to discover what the cost is per dog. We haven’t had that back. We were looking to see if it had any connectivity to COVID that would satisfy the U.S. Treasury guidelines, Accenture has been involved in all of that, none of which have I gotten anything back on yet.”
Calvey again said it’s too early to allocate ARPA funds.
“I would also point out that it is this body, the Board of County Commissioners, that has the decision making authority over ARPA funds, not the Budget Board,” Calvey said. “So as all three of us have mentioned here I think this item is, you know, certainly premature.”
Commissioners then elected to take no action on Hooten’s budget item.