Just about the only thing you can say about the Oklahoma County Jail that's even remotely favorable is that it doesn't have its own entry in Wikipedia. Yet.
The $44 million facility at 201 North Shartel was built in 1987, paid for by a one-year one-cent sales tax. At the time, everyone thought it was utterly wonderful: an extension to the city's rather stumpy skyline, a fresh new headquarters for the sheriff's office, and room for as many as 1200 inmates. And maybe it was, for a while. Still, questions remained: it hadn't been so long since the infamous County Commissioner Scandal, which begain in 1981 when a federal grand jury indicted a few commissioners in western Oklahoma for graft, and then things snowballed. By the time the scandal had run its course in 1984, commissioners in 69 of Oklahoma's 77 counties had resigned or had been forced out of office. Worse yet, at the time the scandal erupted, the economy had turned as sour as the local crude oil, with prices in free fall and producers going broke left and right, culminating with the failure of Penn Square Bank in 1982. You can't really blame the voters for thinking, or hoping, "Maybe we've turned a corner here." I gave it no thought myself, as I was in the process of getting ready to move to southern California.
If we weren't sure that corners had been turned, we found out quickly enough that corners had been cut. This story broke in 2008:
Allegations of death, abuse and neglect in the Oklahoma County jail cost taxpayers more than $2.5 million in legal settlements and attorney fees in the past decade, county records show.
A Department of Justice inquiry followed, and eventually there was a Memorandum of Understanding [pdf] agreed to by the county and DOJ, with sixty provisions, the last of which proved to be the hardest:
By four years from the effective date of this MOU, the County shall house all Oklahoma County Jail Detainees at a facility that meets minimum constitutional standards. By this date, the County will house Detainees in a facility that complies with this MOU. The parties anticipate that the County will either improve or renovate the existing Jail facility or begin efforts to replace or expand the current Jail with a new facility or facilities to meet the requirements of this MOU. In accordance with this, the County shall create a commission or similar entity, to develop a series of recommendations, and appropriate timetables to address this Jail expansion and renovation program.
Came the fifth of November 2013, and over two thousand inmates were stacked like cords of wood in the same old jail that had boasted room for 1200. Under the Memorandum, DOJ could sue, and they advised the county that they were preparing to do exactly that. In the meantime, the county was supposed to submit a plan for a new jail the old one, said the county, could not be retrofitted in accordance with DOJ's specifications by 2015.
The county did exactly what you'd think they'd do: they set up a committee to study the matter. And that committee came up with the answer you'd expect: replace the damned thing. As before, it would be financed with a sales tax of one cent for five years, inasmuch as the price tag has ballooned to $365 million. (They included in the proposal a replacement for the juvenile facility on Classen, because it's needed, and because it's traditional in this state to pad out all proposals as far as possible.) After five years, the tax would be reduced, perhaps to half a cent, to cover continuing operations.
It's either that, pointed out The Oklahoman, or something worse:
[I]t will become every county taxpayer's problem if the federal government comes in and takes the place over, which has been a possibility since the Justice Department cited the jail for 60 civil rights violations several years ago. A federal mandate to build a new jail would be paid for through an increase in property taxes.
And that won't be a small increase, either. There is only about $60 billion in taxable property in the county, about $6.5 billion in taxable valuation; at current rates this would produce only $700 million or so in a single year, and half of that goes to already earmarked county functions. If the county has to come up with the whole $365 million up front, taxes would nearly double for that year.
"But ... cap law!" Doesn't mean a thing. The cap law limits taxable valuation, not the actual tax rate. Ask the folks in Caldwell, New Jersey about that.
Me? I think the sales tax will pass if, and only if, that provision for continuing the tax after five years is stricken. People are willing to pay for stuff if they know how long they'll have to pay for it: see any of the three implementations of MAPS. And they'll accept open-ended levies if they like the recipients. (In the case of Oklahoma City, this includes police and fire protection, and the Zoo.) The jail stirs no such enthusiasm.
And I'm still wondering how Los Angeles built a jail in 2010 for a mere $74 million. Different standards for graft, perhaps?
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Copyright © 2015 by Charles G. Hill