OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — The City Council of Oklahoma City voted 7-2 in-person to approve the proposed 1.6 billion budget for the Fiscal Year 2021-2022 (FY22) which begins July 1.
This comes after some have protested the values revealed in the proportions of the proposed budget devoted to items like the Police Department budget.
The Council also approved a significant federally-backed loan to the First National Project downtown, and amended service agreements with the Oklahoma City Blue and the Oklahoma City Thunder pro basketball teams.
In the final installment of this year’s budget discussions at City Hall, the City Council was asked to adopt a proposed budget for FY22.
Budget Director Doug Dowler gave a brief presentation of the proposed budget package of $1,648,600,000. Mayor Holt was kind enough to clarify for those of us in the press room during the meeting, that that was a possible $1.6 billion, but that expenditures were expected to be $1 billion.
Of the total budget, Dowler explained, 63% of General Fund expenditures in this budget fall under “public safety.”
As if to underscore that percentage, and to seemingly make a show of force, a dozen or more uniformed and armed police personnel took up much of the public seating throughout the meeting, leaving only after the final police budget item had passed.
John George, police union president and Mark Nelson, vice-president sat in the front row for the entirety of the meeting.
Two members of the Council spoke about their reasons for not supporting the budget.
Ward 6 Councilor JoBeth Hamon* made remarks about the cultural moment Oklahoma City, and indeed the country, is facing.
Hamon said that in the last year, since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, our community has had an opportunity to reimagine the concept of public safety. She said that if budgets are indeed a moral document, this budget shows that Oklahoma City has failed to meet this moment.
Hamon gave two examples of local nonprofit organizations who have made a difference in the community with no city funding.
The Mental Health Association Oklahoma (Hamon’s employer), has fielded an outreach team made up of three staff members. That team has managed over the last year to scrape together resources that housed over 100 people in a time when vouchers are few and waiting lists are long.
ION, under the umbrella of Mental Health Association Oklahoma and funded by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS), serves people in our community experiencing serious mental illness. The program has had great outcomes, Hamon said. By offering wrap-around services and resources, they have reduced the number of return visits to Oklahoma City’s crisis centers by 90%. Not only did they do this without city funding, they saved the City significant money while doing so.
Hamon said that the designated $300,000 for an undetermined “alternative mental health response” does not come close to meeting the need in our community.
“All this while we are spending over $1 million to defend an ordinance that criminalizes poverty,” Hamon said, referring to the highly unpopular panhandling ordinance passed in 2016. The City suffered defeat in the courts leaving open the question of how much the legal action could eventually cost the taxpayers of OKC.
“The safest communities aren’t the ones with the most police, they’re the ones with the most resources,” Hamon said. “I’m incredibly disappointed we haven’t addressed this as a city.”
Funding oversight criticized
Nikki Nice, Councilwoman of Ward 7, also voiced many concerns about the budget.
Over the last several months in public meetings, and according to Nice, in private conversations, she has tried to advocate for some oversight and accountability for the “Progress OKC” program, which receives funding from the City.
In particular, Nice has expressed frustration about her calls for the “Kiva” program, which is funded by the City, to not be a part of the City’s budget.
“We still have no oversight over Progress OKC,” she declared counter to City Manager Craig Freeman’s tepid response.
“We can do more and better,” Nice said later. She mentioned the Human Rights Commission that has budget money dedicated to it’s re-establishment. Nice said the commission was disbanded years ago out of fear of the increasingly visible LGBTQ community in Oklahoma City.
Nice went on to say that in the police district that covers her ward, the Springlake division, there have been seven commanding officers since she was elected in 2018.
She only learned of the change after calling who she thought was the commanding officer and he told her he wasn’t there anymore and told her who to contact instead. She was not informed of this change formally.
“If we want ‘One OKC” we have to build one OKC.” Nice summarized. “We need to build better relationships.”
Ward 2 Councilman James Cooper opened his remarks with a ten minute clip of a documentary from the Neighborhood Alliance. The video featured Dr. Bob Blackburn, lately of the Oklahoma Historical Society, explaining the role of race relations in the building of our City’s neighborhoods.
After the stirring history lesson, Cooper delivered remarks about the importance of reckoning with our history and choosing where we go next.
Then Cooper said he would support the budget.
His reason seemed based on the $1.3 million dollars allocated for yet-to-be-determined, City Council-approved “recommendations from task forces and working groups on community policing, human rights, and homelessness.” (Update: The language quoted is from a press release correction issued by the City Public Information Office Wednesday.)
The $1.3 million includes $300,000 allocated to a yet-to-be-determined alternative mental health response.
Update: Cooper told Free Press Wednesday that the $1.3 million will be in a non-departmental placeholder account until the aforementioned recommendations come in later in the summer.
None of the other Council members made any remarks about their support of the budget.
Despite those concerns and the overwhelming number of comments from the public over the past year and especially during the budget hearings, including at Council’s meeting Tuesday, the budget passed 7-2 with only Hamon and Nice voting against.
The remodeling and restoration of the old First National Bank building downtown at 120 North Robinson Avenue has been ongoing for years. The finished product will be called “The National.” While much progress has been made on the project, more work is left to be done.
The Council received a presentation about the history of the project and the progress made so far.
The rejuvenation of the grand building includes a 600 unit parking garage, hotel with over one hundred units and residences as well. The residences will generate ad valorem taxes and the hotel will generate sales taxes.
Developer Gary Brooks addressed the council saying that the project will create over 200 jobs.
Unlike most hotels that generally have a bar and sometimes restaurant, the First National project will have seven bars and restaurants and two ballrooms that hold approximately 400 people. This will create more jobs than a typical hotel of the same size.
The project is eligible for a low-interest $11 million loan from the city through the Federal Section 108 loan program.
This loan program is guaranteed by HUD, allowing the City to “downstream” low interest loans to housing developments that come with economic development in the community.
However, the project must eventually yield 220 jobs or the developer will have to eventually pay some of the money back.
Nice and Hamon both asked how the project would assist people with low to moderate income.
Brooks explained that since the beginning of the project, they have focused on hiring people in employment programs like First Step, a substance use recovery program in Oklahoma City.
Brooks said that they funded an asbestos abatement program at Rose State and hired graduates to work on the project.
Additionally, Brooks tries to work with the Homeless Alliance and their program the Curbside Chronicle to develop employment opportunities.
The Council unanimously approved the loan.
In the same week that Oklahoma City residents learned that the City has been paying the costs of parking for season ticket holders to Thunder games, an amendment and addendum to the use license agreements for the City’s downtown arena were brought before the Council on Tuesday.
City officials explained that as part of leasing the formerly named Cox Convention Center to Prairie Winds Studio, the instructional league basketball team the Oklahoma City Blue had to be relocated to another facility. The displacement of the team was originally expected to cost more, but was negotiated down to $62,900. Half of that cost will be reimbursed by the new tenant of the original facility.
The second part of that change in agreements reflected the absence of ticket holders for the last season and part of the prior season, during which play was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.
While there are reimbursables paid to the City from the Professional Basketball Club, LLC per game, without ticket-holding fans in the arena those had to be negotiated down significantly.
For a typical game with the stands full of fans buying concessions and memorabilia, the reimbursables would frequently reach the $40,000 mark or more. Those were negotiated down to $2,100 per game.
The amendment passed unanimously.
The City Council will meet again on June 22 at 8:30 a.m.
*Note: Ward 6 Councilor JoBeth Hamon is married to Marty Peercy.
Last Updated June 9, 2021, 10:34 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor