Democrats running for Oklahoma County Commissioner District 1 mostly agreed on issues like the need for a new jail in a debate hosted by Rep. Jason Lowe (D-OKC) on Tuesday night, with some notable caveats.
Incumbent District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert, pastor Christine Byrd, former district court Judge Kendra Coleman and former Sen. Anastasia Pittman took part in the event, which was held at Fairview Missionary Baptist Church in northeast Oklahoma City. They will face off in the June 28 Democratic primary.
Candidates also discussed what to do with the more than $150 million in American Rescue Plan Act money the county has received from the federal government.
District 1 includes parts of northeast OKC, Del City, Forest Park, Jones, Midwest City, Nicoma Park, Spencer and most recently, The Village, which was included within its boundaries during redistricting late last year.
Candidates mostly agree on proposed new jail
All four candidates agreed on the urgent need for a new Oklahoma County Jail. The current facility has been troubled since it opened, with repeated inmate deaths, questions about its management and harsh conditions for inmates that have made headlines in recent years.
Coleman, who was barred from running for district judge earlier this year because the Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary removed her from office in 2020, said the proposed new jail is needed given the state of the current facility.
“I support building the jail,” she said. “I understand there is some confusion about how much it will cost and the interest rates. But I want to be clear, I support the jail because the current jail has been less than subpar. There are bed bugs, and some of the cells don’t even lock. There are all kinds of problems the public doesn’t know about. We absolutely need a new jail.”
Coleman referenced interest rates on bonds for the new jail. Under state law, the maximum interest rate is required to be listed on the ballot. The maximum potential interest rate for the proposed $260 million in bonds county residents will vote on is 10 percent. Blumert, who is also supporting a new jail, said rates likely will not be that high.
“On your ballot, you will see the interest rate on the bond, which is up to 10 percent. That’s not the percentage of the interest on this bond,” Blumert said. “We’re looking at about 4 percent, but we have to put that in because of state statute.”
Pittman said she supports the new jail because it’s the only option.
“I support the new jail, not because I want a $300 million bill put toward the residents of Oklahoma County, but because of the way the current jail is,” Pittman said. “It’s not secure. The medical floor is not a medical floor at all. People are still lacking access to water, and women are still being victimized.”
But while Byrd supports the idea of a new jail, it comes with a set of conditions.
“These questions have to be answered,” Byrd said. “How much will it cost? How big will it be? Where will it be located? What will it look like? When will it be completed? What type of mental health facility will there be? Who will run the facility? Will there be oversight? I support the jail under the conditions that those questions be answered before they break ground.”
Candidates: ARPA money should go to community
Oklahoma County now has $154 million in American Rescue Plan Act money to distribute in the coming years. The money must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
Blumert said she’s been listening to residents when it comes to how to spend the money.
“In the last year, I’ve had over 50 different meetings to hear from the community how they’d best like to use this money — how they would like it to be invested into the community. Because it’s your money,” Blumert said. “In these meetings, I’ve kept a pretty detailed list, and three themes continue to come up: affordable housing and getting folks out of homelessness and into affordable housing; mental health care and addiction treatment; better affordable access to those services. And workforce training. that has come up a lot. Those are the three areas I’m going to advocate for.”
Coleman said investments in small businesses would be among the best uses of the funds, adding that parts of District 1 lack shopping options for residents.
“Home ownership and economic development would be the priorities,” she said. “If we don’t have those things in our community, then it’s not a community. So that’s why I think whatever it takes, that’s where it should be invested. People will stay where there are housing (options) and options for businesses. No one wants to drive forever to go the grocery store or buy a new dress. We need to facilitate new businesses in different areas.”
Byrd cited rising rents and the lack of options for people as a major problem in District 1 and elsewhere in the county.
“When you look at what people are paying for rent, a house that rented for $900 a month last year is renting for $1,500 a month now — for a two bedroom house,” she said. “So affordable housing is an issue. Then I would look at small businesses for people that want to develop those. There are businesses that are in danger of shutting down that need help. When I was in school we had Vo-Tech. Now we talk about Vo-Tech as if it’s shameful. Everyone is not prepared or ready for college. Brick layers and plumbers are invaluable and they’re not just jobs for me. Investing in workforce programs will redirect people so they don’t feel like they’re nobody.”
Pittman also cited the lack of housing and how supply hasn’t kept up with demand.
“We have about 39,000 residents who are in need of housing, and we have enough for probably 12 percent of that,” she said. “No matter what, there is never enough available. Not only do we need training, we need to invest in home ownership. And we also have to invest in health care, because if you’re not healthy you’re not going to work or school, and if you’re not going to work you can’t afford a house.”
Watch the full Oklahoma County District 1 forum