A plan to put a $281 million jail proposal before Oklahoma County voters this spring is on hold, and a jail sales tax ballot drafted by the county likely will not go before voters this spring as planned.
The decision to delay a vote on the half-cent sales tax comes on the heels of a voter survey, but Ray Vaughn, chairman of the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners, would not directly attribute the plan's slowdown to the survey results.
Instead, Vaughn said he has implored the U.S. Department of Justice to relax or terminate its threats to take over the jail.
“We're just kind of waiting on their final stance, I think, and then that will kind of give us the direction that we need to go,” Vaughn said.
“They're the ones driving this train.”
The county agreed in 2008 to address 60 different civil rights violations outlined by federal authorities, and so far all but four of those have been fixed, Vaughn said.
The deadline for presenting a plan of compliance is October, he said, and the four deficiencies that remain will require either an entirely new building or significant alterations to the 13-story tower currently in use downtown.
A report issued in November by a consulting group outlined three options:
• A new jail, at a cost of $281 million, including land acquisition.
• Renovation of the current jail, including an annex, for $253 million.
• Renovation of only the bottom floors of the current jail for $259 million.
The consulting group recommended the first option after considering additional operating cost savings that would be recognized in the new facility on an annual basis.
Vaughn said in December that he expected the sales tax vote to go before voters this month.
But after hearing the results of the voter survey, he is now vague on a specific timeline.
Results of the survey, conducted by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, are not public, but at least one county elected official said he heard the news was not good.
District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan said he believes polling results indicated it would take an expensive marketing campaign and significant support from corporate donors to garner enough votes to pass a sales tax.
“That's a bunch of rhetoric to simply put, this is not going to pass,” said Maughan, who has been the lone commissioner to oppose a new jail.
Sheriff John Whetsel said on Friday he has developed in the interim an alternative plan that would call for a much smaller annex to be constructed adjacent the current jail.
Whetsel, who already has spent upward of $10 million to address deficiencies identified by the U.S. Justice Department, said he would like the commissioners to consider building a “core facilities” annex that would house the jail's medical, kitchen and laundry operations.
The annex also might include dormitory space for as many as 600 inmates, which would reduce the population at the current jail enough to make the remaining deficiencies moot, he said.
It could be built on vacant land just south of the current jail, he said.
“I think the slowness of this process has been very helpful, because it has given us the opportunity to think, to come up with some alternatives, and whatever is decided upon, it will have been a well-thought-out process,” Whetsel said.
But Vaughn said he's not too excited about Whetsel's proposal.
Yes, the annex could be built for significantly cheaper than a new jail — $150 million, Vaughn estimated — but the inordinate maintenance and operational costs at the current jail would continue.
“It's favorable in the way of costs, but it might not be as favorable in the long run,” Vaughn said. “We've had that proposal before, and all the consultants have said no.”
Vaughn said county commissioners have until August to put a sales tax proposal on the ballot in time to meet the October deadline.