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OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — On Tuesday, the City Council of Oklahoma City held a special meeting for a second round of budget hearings in advance of the new fiscal year.

The directors of Transit and Parking, Development Services, and Parks and Recreations presented FY 22 budget plans over the course of the three and a half hour meeting. 

Councilors were able to ask in-depth questions of the directors. At the end of the meeting one resident called in to address the police budget.

Transit and Parking

Jason Ferbrache, Director of EMBARK and administrator of the Central Oklahoma Transit and Parking Authority (COTPA), was first in line to deliver a budget plan at the meeting. His proposed budget for Public Transit and Parking is a total of $46,579,849.

Ferbrache began his presentation with an overview of changes and successes in the last fiscal year. He said that working with employees, EMBARK has developed an inward-looking strategy for improving services. Their goal is to remove socio-economic and physical barriers to transit, while also elevating the status of transit in Oklahoma City.

Ferbrache mentioned the opening of the newest city-owned parking garage accompanying the new convention center. Ferbrache said that parking operations are self-sufficient. That means that even if the new garage operates at a deficit for the first several months as convention center traffic ramps up, other parking assets will offset that shortfall.

Ferbrache also said that the State of Oklahoma passed legislation this year that affects EMBARK. The new legislation allows municipalities to administer Commercial Drivers License tests. That significantly diminishes the amount of time it takes to get a bus operator trained and actually out on the road.

The proposed budget includes fixed route buses, Norman buses, parking, streetcar, ferry, and the Spokies bike-share program.

Fixed route buses are the greatest part of the budget at over $32 million. The buses operating in Norman are contracted by that city. EMBARK receives full cost recovery. Bus budgets come from several funding sources. There is city funding, federal funding, fare receipts, and state money.

EMBARK Plans

The proposed budget includes some changes and improvements for service in Oklahoma City.

The first addition is $295,990 for a new station cleaning program. While the City and EMBARK have invested in many new bus shelters around the city, Ferbrache says that keeping those stations clean has become a major task. This budget item will create positions for cleaning the stops, as well as a cleaning supervisor.

An exciting change coming this year will be to increase the frequency of service on Route 018. Route 018 runs up Lincoln Avenue. Currently the route is on a one-hour rate of frequency. As demand is expected to rise with the opening of the new Homeland at NE36th and Lincoln, Ferbrache wants to be prepared for volume by increasing that frequency to every half-hour.

Several Councilors asked Ferbrache to see what could be done to extend that route’s service hours into the evening so that people can take advantage of the grocery store and bus service.

Ferbrache also refreshed the Council on the plans for the Bus Rapid Transit system currently in the works. Ferbrache gave the Council a presentation on the BRT just last week during their regular meeting. Free Press has reported on BRT previously.

To learn more: EMBARK officials show new Bus Rapid Transit plans in virtual town hall

Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon, wife of this reporter and a frequent bus rider, asked Ferbrache about fares. 

Hamon said that some other municipalities, including peer city Kansas City, have eliminated fares on public transportation. She asked Ferbrache what it would take to be able to do that in Oklahoma City. Ferbrache said that he would discuss it with their consultants and report back.

Development Services

Bob Tener, veteran Oklahoma City employee and Director of Development Services, was second to present a budget on Tuesday.

Development Services covers a lot of responsibilities in the Oklahoma City government. Code enforcement, animal welfare, and construction permitting and inspection all fall under their umbrella.

The proposed budget for FY22 is $21,308,954. That is a 4.25% increase over last year’s more austere budget. This proposal adds six new positions and restores seven positions that have been left vacant during the last year.

One of the new positions is for a Business Intelligence Specialist, a role that many City departments are hoping to add this year. According to Tener, that role will help the department learn ways to use available technologies to increase departmental efficiencies.

Some of the budget money will go toward technological improvements, including tablets for field inspectors to use. With the new tablets, the data entered by the inspector will be automatically added to the department’s system. The tablets will also enable inspectors to take photos in the field and skip the tedious step of uploading those photos from a digital camera to a computer.

Other new technology includes online inspection in some cases. Tener said that building permits have stayed strong over the last year and it’s hard for staff to respond to every request promptly.

In Fiscal Year 21, the Animal Shelter has managed to maintain a 90% live release rate. In addition to the dedicated staff making that possible, the shelter also has volunteers that collectively donated over 197,000 hours of their time last year.

Parks and Recreation

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A city resident and her dog play in one of Oklahoma City’s many parks in 2020. (BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

Doug Kupper, Parks and Recreation Director, gave the final presentation of the day for the proposed budget of his department. After eight years, Kupper is leaving his job in Oklahoma City.

Kupper’s proposed operating budget for the coming year is $32,332,751. This funds 183 authorized positions.

In recovering from budget cuts for last year, this budget would allow the department to get back to mowing every other week instead of the three week schedule of the last year.

Some of the budget includes ground maintenance at the new First Americans Museum which will open in September. The Parks and Recreation Department will be responsible for groundskeeping there.

The proposed budget adds 9 grounds management positions, 4 natural resources positions, and 5 positions for recreation and health and wellness.

New positions include staff for the forthcoming Willa D. Johnson Recreation Center at Douglass Park. It also provides security along the riverfront. According to Kupper, graffiti and other nuisances have been on the rise for the past few years since cutting that security piece from the Parks budget.

The coming year features $61 million in construction projects.Those include the Johnson Recreation Center, Deep Fork Trail, James Stewart Golf Course Clubhouse, and others.

During discussion, Mayor David Holt asked about the mowing frequency of more distant parks. Kupper explained that wildlife areas don’t get mowed at all, and that fire breaks are maintained, but mowing the remaining areas is an unfortunately low priority. Holt suggested that the Council and City Manager and Kupper should revisit the numbers to see if there’s an opportunity to fully restore the Parks budget.

Public Comment

The Council only received public comment from one caller. Jess Eddy, local activist, called to question the police budget presented two weeks ago. He criticized the budget process for making it difficult for the public to have the opportunity to research the budgets in a hard copy.

He went on to say that the budget changes for the police don’t respect or reflect the portions of the community who have been demanding and pleading for a true change in the Oklahoma City Police Department. He said also that the Police Department is not an institution that listens to those who are concerned about their decisions.

The changes on the budget are repetitive of previous years, Eddy said, which have caused strife and mistrust between the community and the Police Department.

Before his microphone was cut off, Eddy questioned the apportionment of money toward civil asset forfeiture and warrants.

The meeting adjourned immediately upon Eddy’s call being ended.

The City Council will meet virtually for regular business on Tuesday, May 25 at 8:30 a.m. The next budget hearing will be on June 1 at 8:30 a.m.

Last Updated May 18, 2021, 2:20 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor