Way back in 1991, when I was a new reporter for KTOK AM 1000 in Oklahoma City, I was assigned to go on a media tour of the brand new Oklahoma County jail. There were lots of politicians leading the tour and pointing out all of the shiny newness.
A little while later, the first inmates escaped from the “escape proof” $52 million structure. The controversy and bickering among politicians escalated with catchy headlines and wringing of hands. It has continued for the last 26 years.
This week in Luther, there was Oklahoma County jail talk again. This time from the Acting Oklahoma County Sheriff PD Taylor and many of his staff who held a public hearing about budgeting for OCSO. They talked about overcrowding in the jail, how employees have to cover their office equipment each night to protect from flooding that could happen overnight, black mold throughout the facility, even feces in the basement where the plumbing has crumbled. He talked about the jail lacking a kitchen, and having a chronic shortage of employees willing to work there. After the meeting, I was invited by an investigator to take another tour of the jail. I asked, somewhat jokingly, if I should wear a haz-mat suit, and the reply was “good idea.”
Too bad for the hundreds of employees and 2,200 inmates who are there daily. Some of those inmates we know – they are our family or friends, unfortunately who’ve found themselves in the churning system. It’s an echo of our society and our choices. They are awaiting trial, awaiting sentencing or awaiting a spot in a prison. They are waiting it out at the Oklahoma County jail.
Taylor is running to be elected Oklahoma County Sheriff in September, after winning the Republican primary in April. Until then, he is serving as acting sheriff, or undersheriff as some call him. Taylor has been with OCSO for 20 years.
His stop in Luther Wednesday evening was the third of a tour of rural areas of the county to ask citizens to “help me get my message out. We need your help.” Previous meetings were held by Taylor in Deer Creek and Newalla to bring attention to a $800,000 denial of additional funding to his office next fiscal year.
At stake, Taylor said was potential losses to the patrol division and the deputies who cover 150 miles of unincorporated areas of the county, including areas outside of Luther town limits. While Taylor said he won’t cut those patrols, he said other county officials “don’t care about you.”
In making his case, Taylor said that one of the officials who voted against the increased budget was Larry Stein, the unelected deputy chief of the County Assessor’s office. Taylor said in the meeting that Stein had said that “nobody lives out there anyway.”
When asked for a response, Stein fired back.
“Mr. Taylor is lying, I have NEVER said anything like that about rural areas of Oklahoma County and he owes me an apology,” Stein wrote in an email to The Luther Register. He also sent the following.
“I have supported greater accountability and that is why the $803,000 was not approved. The Sheriff’s office was appropriated $3.6 MILLION last year to hire more Detention Officers and provide a raise for EVERY SHERIFF’S deputy of 3 percent. Those funds were diverted to other purposes and the acting sheriff couldn’t provide any evidence of where the money went, and his request for the $803,000 was not for specific duties or costs associated with the constitutional or statutory requirements of the sheriff’s office.
The sheriff’s office was funded for ALL the patrols of unincorporated areas, and the additional $803,000 doesn’t impact patrols or law enforcement,” said Stein.
Stein also sent a document of talking points about the OCSO and the problems that preceded the resignation of former long-time Sheriff John Whetsel shortly after his re-election in November. Taylor has explained that the denial of the $803,00 mostly covers increased medical contract costs associated with the jail.
No Cut—Same as Last Year
by Larry Stein, deputy director, Oklahoma County Assessor’s Office
It’s disappointing to see the reaction from the Oklahoma County Under-Sheriff after the Budget Board voted to fund all the constitutional and statutory duties for the jail on May 18, 2017, while demanding greater accountability and stopping the mismanagement and wild spending habits at the jail.
‘Gun, Vehicles missing from Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office?’ ‘Undersheriff says Problems Not His Doing,’ screamed the headlines in The Oklahoman. No accountability, no criminal charges filed, it’s as if the undersheriff was parachuted in and wasn’t responsible for anything that happened in the jail for 20 years.
The reason we have an under-sheriff is because of a financial scandal and $3.3 million in missing guns, cars and equipment. It’s obvious there are problems and one might ask how any more money could be sent to a sheriff’s office after these financial scandals.
The Budget Board vote was to stop the wild spending habits and mismanagement at the Oklahoma County Jail and some of the Budget Board members did just that.
For the last 20 years the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s General Fund Budget has increased from $10.4 million to $34.3 million, a whopping 227 percent increase, more than any other county officer, for a total amount of spending of $465.7 million. The sheriff’s responsibility is to operate the county jail and to provide security at the courthouse and the courtrooms. The jail and the courthouse are the same size today as they were in 1997.
Out of all the money taxpayers have allocated to the Oklahoma County jail over the years the problems have never been fixed. Instead, the past administration has used those funds and special revenue funds, not General Fund money, to build a fleet of more than 360 vehicles, a 30 employee patrol division to issue tickets on city streets, state highways and unincorporated areas and a public community relations group of 30 individuals.
Let’s remember the county property owners ALSO pay for judgments for the sheriff’s office failure to do the right thing. In Oklahoma County in the last 10 years Oklahoma County Property owners paid an additional $20 million in HIGHER property taxes because of judgments for the sheriff’s failure to pay bills or lawsuits involving jail operations.
The acting sheriff indicates without an additional $800,000 he can’t perform the duties he’s required to perform as required by constitution and statute. Last year the Budget Board approved additional 20 Detention Officers (DO’s) and a raise in pay for all the sheriff’s employees last year. But the 20 new DO’s were NEVER hired, and the 3 percent pay increase was never increased.
In addition, the sheriff has more than $3 million in unused Special Revenue funds that remain unspent to perform the duties at the jail and courthouse. All of the courthouse security the acting sheriff says are threatened by the stand-still budget are already funded by Special Revenue Funds, nearly $5 million in, funds the Budget Board left to the sheriff’s discretion.
There are only so many dollars county taxpayers can provide to operate the essential services they expect. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!” The acting county sheriff has all the money needed to perform his required tasks. If there is an emergency and more money is needed, the sheriff must explain to the taxpayers why he needs additional funds, just as any other accountable government agency would be required to do.”
From a document emailed to The Luther Register from Larry Stein.
There’s the old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
For 26 years.
Do Oklahoma county residents want a change in the way county government operates when it comes to the jail; the sheriff’s office and all of the other ways it serves citizens? Do we want our potholes fixed and our property value assessed correctly? Do we want feces in the basement of the county jail? Do we want our loved ones who are incarcerated getting sick? Do we want the county paying the medical bills of inmates who await delay after delay in their cases? Do we want inmates dying at the jail? Do we want politicians bickering at each other? Do we want some calm adult discussion to seek solutions?
Coming to meetings and listening is great. So is contacting officials. Being informed is critical, and thank you very much for reading this part rant/part story in The Luther Register. What do we do next?