POSTED ON FEBRUARY 13, 2013:
Three for the County
Passion a Part of Commissioners' Focus
Time can be an ally in politics, or it can seem an enemy. Even the longest-tenured elected officials can struggle with completing all of their agenda while in office.
Project deadlines often hit a hard wall when it comes to funding, which has yet to materialize for a new Juvenile Bureau site that's currently a top priority for Commissioner Karen Keith. The yearly deadlines for budget review once again are creeping up on all the commissioners, with Commissioner John Smaligo focused on scrutinizing every expenditure.
Commissioner Fred Perry unexpectedly announced Feb. 11 he would resign before completing his term and retiring because of health reasons, so he undoubtedly would like to see rapid progress in his goal to make tennis facilities truly become a regional attraction.
Asked to speak about one topic and its relevance to the community, the trio of elected officials didn't hesitate to open up and describe what matters to them and why others should also care.
Karen Keith: New juvenile justice center
The slick poster board leaning against the wall shows a birds-eye view of downtown near the BOK Center. On glossy stock, it presents a vision for a new Juvenile Bureau complex, one with enough room for family court needs and for social service agencies to work with youthful offenders and their families.
How long has it been since the mock-up was made?
"Too long," said Commissioner Karen Keith, putting its age at somewhere around three years.
In her office, Keith explained her drive to replace an aging, cramped facility.
"Everybody knows some young people. They could easily get in trouble, and I think we could all agree that intervening in their lives at this stage would be so much better than letting them spiral on out of control," Keith said.
The county's needs to improve juvenile facilities made it onto the list of Vision2 projects, but voters rejected that proposed tax measure in November.
The cost of a new facility would likely be close to $45 million, Keith said.
The site on the mock-up, known as the "Storey Wrecker" site, the home of an industrial business, would be conveniently close to the Tulsa County Courthouse and the county jail.
It may not be the right spot for the county, however, Keith said.
"We have some environmental issues with that spot, and if we can't deal with it where we feel like it's safe for the kids who would be put in detention, we have to move on," Keith said. "So we are in the process -- in tandem with trying to find out how bad it is -- we are continuing to look at other options and sites."
Keith, however, spoke about the need to continue to press the issue. While she said the county should accept responsibility for any new court construction, she also spoke about involving private foundations with an interest in helping youth.
The idea is to "kind of parcel the building off," Keith said. The mock-up in her office shows a separate building to house support services for youth.
"We should build the courts, that's our job, our statutory job. But there are these community pieces where I think we could seek some foundation support for that," Keith said.
At the Juvenile Bureau on a recent Friday morning, roughly 20 people occupied a waiting area near one of four courtrooms.
Brent Wolfe, director of the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau, said that number swells during days with a busier docket.
Leading a tour of the facility, Wolfe pointed out how one courtroom previously had been used to house offices for the court's stenography staff. Of the facility's four courts, only one is large enough to hold a jury trial, he said. Other courtrooms are less than half the size necessary to seat a jury.
Inside the facility, intake staff meets with youthful offenders and often their families. While some offenses automatically result in a court hearing, other times no court case is pursued.
But these offices are tiny: roughly eight feet wide, and perhaps seven feet from the door to the back wall.
Christi Flagg, an intake counselor, has her desk facing a wall, with three chairs squeezed into the office. But she said many meetings involve parents, the youthful offender and, oftentimes, a toddler or young child tagging along for the meeting.
Doris Fransein, chief judge for the juvenile bureau, said that, for too long, the family court system has been out of sight and out of mind. The bureau is located on South Gilcrease Museum Road, close to two miles from the downtown courthouse.
"Juvenile court has never been the top priority," she said.
But while the number of juvenile offenders has stayed pretty stable, Fransein said the court is seeing more and more child neglect and child abuse cases.
"We need a courthouse," she said. District attorney and court staff offices also are small, with carts full of case paperwork lining one hallway alongside stacks of boxes and a bookshelf, all because there's no other place for them.
Fransein praised Keith for her efforts in pushing for something to be done soon.
"She has been unbelievably supportive," Fransein said.
When it comes to finding dollars for the project, "I want to be aggressive about it," Keith said.
"We're looking at our options. We don't have anything specific," Keith said. "Oh, there are different bonding opportunities that are out there. So we're just looking at every option, you know. We'll have to see what we think the community will have an appetite for."
Fred Perry: New tennis facility
Commissioner Fred Perry has a great tennis name, sharing it with the renowned English champion of the 1930s.
So, perhaps it's a little bit of destiny that the longtime politician would enjoy the game and also carve out for himself a mission within his role as a county leader to help Tulsa tennis thrive.
"It's more than just something for the tennis players because it is an economic development thing," Perry said, striding toward the courts on an unseasonably warm January day.
More and better courts translate into more tournaments, which means more out-of-town -- or even out-of-state -- visitors, who might spend money during multiday events, he noted.
The county has spent about $2 million to expand the number of courts at LaFortune Park, the county-run site on South Yale Avenue between East 51st Street and East 61st Street. The project involved replacing nine older courts with 18 new ones.
Of that money spent, about $1.2 million came to the county from the Vision 2025 sales tax initiative, with another $800,000 from the 4-to-Fix the County sales tax initiative, Perry said.
Central Park Hall
The additional courts feature excellent lighting and ample room between them, a plus for any player. "State of the art fencing, state of the art lighting," Perry said, noting that the facility features ramps for the disabled and required some drainage problems to be fixed.
With the changes, the LaFortune courts have been able to attract new tournaments.
"People come in and say these are the best courts in this part of the country," Perry said.
But Perry wants to take things to the next level, hoping to solicit private funds to help pay for three indoor courts and a new clubhouse facility.
Public funds simply aren't available, Perry said. "That's why we are doing fundraising. Every week, we are calling on individuals, foundations," he said.
There's still room for growth, said Dave McCorkle, the site's tournament director.
"If we've got indoor backup, we'll get higher-level tournaments," McCorkle said, explaining that the ability to guarantee play even during rainy conditions would be a big boost for Tulsa's prospects.
During an interview in the facility's tiny office structure --made even more so during the winter because it doubles as ball storage -- two boys from Edison High School dropped in, hoping to squeeze in some court time even though the site officially remains closed during the winter months.
Melissa McCorkle, the county's director of tennis (Dave is her husband), allowed it. For the McCorkles, who run things day-to-day, the main purpose of a public tennis program is clear.
"That's our biggest focus, is the kids. The adults is a big focus, but what we do for kids is kind of -- it's our heart," Melissa McCorkle said.
The county allows Tulsa Public Schools to use the courts free of charge. Beyond access, Perry said the program will even supply rackets to underserved youth to help them enjoy the game.
Melissa McCorkle described the indoor facility as a potential help to keeping those youth involved in the game.
"We need a place for our kids," she said. "We need a place where we can keep them all year."
She took over tennis operations in 2003, and helped build up the program to a point where more youth are picking up a racket, even if their families can't begin to afford private club fees. When there's a winter break, however, "we don't get half of them back."
She said she's tried staying open in the winter, but the Oklahoma winters too often make play impossible.
During her time, she's seen the number of courts increase from 12 to 21. Dave McCorkle praised her for offering a variety of programs for anyone with an interest in playing.
Among other offerings, the facility offers what's known as "cardio tennis" for those with a focus on fitness more than competition. Adult beginners have their own drills program, and now a half dozen tennis pros offer lessons for anyone wanting extra instruction.
"She's got this place to where we do the whole scenario," Dave McCorkle said, noting that more tournaments are held at the facility than anywhere else in Tulsa. In a given month, 5,000 players will visit the courts.
Perry noted that when the first phase of renovations was done to the LaFortune courts, Oklahoma City had courts built in the 1990s compared to the oldest courts at LaFortune, which he said were constructed in the 1960s
With the latest phase, however, "we're doing it all with private funds, so we've been fundraising."
Mike Case, a developer, has offered a $1 million challenge grant, which would fund half of the costs for the indoor facility.
Some additional funds have already been raised.
"We've been working the phones," said Melissa McCorkle, who is an independent contractor with the county. "We've had a lot of donations from tennis players, smaller-type ones but we'd like to credit them." The effort has also scored a $200,000 pledge, but Melissa McCorkle said more than $600,000 is still needed.
However, engineering drawings and design work have already been done for the facility. Dave McCorkle said the project should be able to be completed quickly once the money is raised.
By his estimate, indoor court fees can remain under $20 per hour to remain competitive with private indoor courts. The county receives all court fees, which for the outdoor courts are $5 total for 90 minutes of a singles match (two players) and $8 for those playing doubles (four players). Dave McCorkle said the fees should help the county.
He also noted that Perry plays impressively, taking part on a team that advanced to a national competition.
Perry spoke about the project before his Feb. 11 announcement that he would be stepping down as commissioner after a lengthy career in public service.
But in commenting about his desire to raise funds, he spoke like someone hoping to leave a lasting benefit for the community.
"I'm in the middle of my second term. And this is something I feel like I can leave behind. It's tangible," Perry said.
John Smaligo: Safeguarding public dollars
It's a tough decision that stood out to Commissioner John Smaligo.
Last year, as part of a continuing effort to tighten the reins on government spending, the county eliminated funding to a social services program that offered meals to the homeless.
"That was one area we felt like maybe we need to reassess what the county's responsibilities are versus the charitable organizations, the private sector if you will," Smaligo said. Ultimately, the decision was made to "not have the taxpayers funding that directly."
Moves like these, along with a still slumping economy and newly enacted restrictions on ad valorem taxes, and it's little wonder that Smaligo said being a budget hawk isn't so much something that he finds personally appealing.
But "it's the number one responsibility, it's the number one duty of an elected official, is to watch over tax dollars," he said. The goal is clear to Smaligo: "Make sure that our citizens are not investing, are not paying into a government in some way that the government is wasting money."
That mindset isn't only a philosophy; given certain economic realities, it's also a necessity, he said.
"We're not going to see the larger increases [in revenue] that we had seen in years past. We're not going to see that over the long-term -- probably forever," Smaligo said.
In Oklahoma, property tax rates are set by statute. The system is also designed to keep property owners from experiencing a sudden increase in taxes should property values increase.
Until recently, property taxes could only increase by 5 percent from one year to the next, so there was often a lag between when property values increase significantly and when taxes went up. The steady increases were still very significant to county budgets.
The recent recession, however, led to mostly stable property values.
"Everybody's paying what their house is actually worth; we're not going to see any large increases in revenue from ad valorem," Smaligo said, referring to the official tax term that includes property taxes based on the value of the property.
In November, the maximum 5 percent year-to-year increase was lowered by voters to 3 percent, further decreasing the likelihood of a revenue increase for the county. The current budget's projected $57 million in revenues includes $51 million from property taxes.
Recent years already have seen what Smaligo described as "stand-still" budgets, leading to some hard decisions.
"We've cut back on some programs. In several areas, we've cut back on the number of employees doing work throughout the county," Smaligo said, adding that, "going forward, what you're going to see is probably a lot more of the same."
Also on the horizon are potential increases in "fixed costs" related to budget items like fuel as well as health insurance for employees, he said.
"We've got to work in a more aggressive way to manage our costs and do what we can to provide the services that are demanded by the public in the most efficient way possible," Smaligo said.
He invited citizens to attend budget hearings scheduled for April, stressing that developing the budget is an open process.
It's also a lengthy one. As part of budget preparation, part of the process involves Smaligo and other commissioners reviewing department requests which may be above general budget targets. Such requests, known as target overruns, may involve a need for new equipment, for example.
For county commissioners, "part of each of our responsibilities is to look into those things, find out what the greatest need is and allocate those resources," Smaligo said, adding that "just as important" is asking division directors, "Are there any programs, any areas that you think should be eliminated?"
The county works with other governments to try to provide services as efficiently as possible, Smaligo said, citing partnerships and collaborations with the Cherokee Nation for infrastructure projects, with similar agreements involving road projects in different Tulsa County municipalities.
There's also federal and state funding. Smaligo talked about the county working more aggressively to court grants and seek out federal funds. He said such funding has been used to eliminate blight in the Turley area in the northern part of the county, for example.
Rev. Ron Robinson, executive director of the A Third Place Community Foundation, called the tearing down of dilapidated homes "a good project, and we would love to see them do some more."
He said about 23 homes were torn down, with the removal of some blighted structures paving the way for a community garden on North Johnstown Avenue.
"If the funding goes away, if the federal government finally tightens their belts ... that's fine, we will do without the money and we'll try to achieve the same goals another way," Smaligo said.
For citizens interested in having input, letter-writing and phone calls to elected officials are one way to have their voices heard, Smaligo said.
But not everyone is going to follow through with such contact. He said another very important way the county hears from citizens involves their making use of county services, calling that "probably the main way that we hear a request, if you will, from the public for certain services or additional services or even decreased services."
Commissioners study demand, even if that involves studying court caseloads or the local jail population.
"As those demands increase or decrease we have to put resources in those areas," Smaligo said. In a way, "it's very similar to what the private sector has with people voting with their dollars," he said.
He said he doesn't focus on any one particular area within the budget when looking to trim expenses. He does, however, seek outside perspectives.
"I think there are a lot of opportunities for us to compare our operations, office by office and division by division with Oklahoma County in particular," Smaligo said. "Because it's really the true peer for Tulsa County, and so I think there's a lot of opportunities for us to do some comparisons with Oklahoma County, checking our efficiencies versus their efficiencies and learning from each other."
Future budgets will undoubtedly be influenced by limited resources. "It's going to force the budget board to continually re-prioritize how we spend tax dollars," Smaligo said, referring to the board of county elected officials that ultimately signs off on the budget each year.
"There are some things like parks that are optional. We don't have to do them. We're the only county in the state that has a parks department, and so what does that mean for the future of those services that we're not required to provide? That's something that the budget board as a whole is going to have to make a decision on," Smaligo said.
Trotting to the Post
Call it the deal that wasn't.
A November announcement touted a $1.44 million yearly naming rights deal for Expo Square, with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation paying Tulsa County in a move described by the tribe as a way to save money.
But any cost savings hinged on the exit of horseracing from the county fairgrounds. The tribe stated this would allow them to avoid certain payments required under a state gaming compact.
But a month later, county officials issued their own statement, announcing two previously overlooked agreements relating to horseracing in 2013 at the fairgrounds' Fair Meadows.
The deal was off. New terms on the table in December involved a more modest, approximately $140,000 annual naming rights payment, according to public records released by the county following a Dec. 12 meeting of the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority, which oversees the fairgrounds.
Principal Chief George Tiger, representing the Creeks at that meeting, told county officials he wasn't prepared to sign any deal, citing the unexpected turn of events and the need to seek an appropriation from the Creeks' governing body.
Two months later, no such request has been made. But both Tiger and Tulsa County Commissioner John Smaligo, in separate interviews, said a deal remains under consideration.
"We're still in the negotiating process of that project and maybe, at some point in time soon, one way or another, there'll be an announcement made," Tiger said.
A meeting will be held soon involving "myself and some other people that are within our umbrella of the Nation" to further discuss the issue, Tiger said Feb. 7.
"We have a plan in place to meet within a couple of weeks," Tiger said, adding, "we're looking at ways to make it easier for this thing to happen."
The planned meeting is not a formal government meeting. Tiger said a request for an appropriation from the Creek governing body may come later "if that's the route that we end up using."
Smaligo confirmed that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was included in "ongoing" discussions involving naming rights, but added that "we would certainly be interested in having discussions with others."
As far a naming rights deal, "there really isn't a timeline on that," Smaligo said.
In the meantime, Ron Shotts, director of horseracing for the county, said preparations are underway for the summer.
"Everything will be pretty much the same," Shotts said. "We'll run our 34 days from early June into the first couple of days of August."
He said the county is in contact with horseracing associations about the upcoming season, including the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Association.
"The quarter horse people have stated they have some money they might be able to help us with marketing and promotion," Shotts said.
Racing enthusiasts at public meetings have said they want to help improve attendance at Fair Meadows. County leaders cited a lack of people in the stands as a reason for dropping horseracing. Shotts said horseracing at the fairgrounds began nearly 25 years ago.
He said he doesn't know if other changes will be forthcoming.
"Any conversations are so speculative right now, I really couldn't comment on anything," Shotts said.
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