Tuesday, City of Oklahoma City Council members heard reports about storm debris removal, significant pedestrian/bike infrastructure improvements, and took action to establish the next round of City Council seats up for election in 2021.
The council also heard a report about the first round of OKC Small Business Continuity Program assistance.
In light of the recent destructive ice storm, several Oklahoma City Councilors from the core of Oklahoma City asked what might be the best ways to connect with OG&E and the Corporation Commission that regulates them to push for a different approach to providing service.
Lack of communication
Councilor James Cooper said that even that day, “this morning, as I speak,” he had constituents in Ward 2 in the center of the city pleading with him to help get their OG&E power back on. For far too many, it had been 14 days without power.
“While I am appreciative of the workers … I am equally as frustrated – studying the map of outages a couple of nights ago – of outages across Ward 2,” said Cooper. “It’s a troublesome image that represents a significant number of Ward 2 households who remain without electricity in their homes for nearly two weeks.”
“It has been especially hard hearing stories from students, seniors, and young families as they described their experiences.”
He went on to describe how he and his mother had struggled with the lack of power even after the storm had passed.
“Friends, that troubles me deeply,” said Cooper.
Cooper talked about the possibilities of buried power lines used in some parts of the country already but also talked about tree trimming, a considerably less expensive way to make the system more robust.
The councilor talked about the many comments he had heard from constituents about the “lack of communication” from OG&E directly to the consumers. “Busy signals and not being able to talk to a live person” were among the complaints Cooper said he had received.
Infrastructure and public health
JoBeth Hamon also contributed to the discussion by asking if there was a way for their legislative program to include bringing more pressure to bear on the Corporation Commission that is supposed to regulate OG&E, a public utility.
She talked about real-life situations where public health was affected by the slow performance of OG&E power to come back on.
One email told of a household with a newborn that lost power. They went to an in-law’s house to stay warm. Eventually, both households except for the newborn now have COVID-19 .
Hamon acknowledged the hard work of the workers in the field working in bad conditions to restore power.
But, she also asked if the City could be more assertive in its legislative priorities.
“Could we have a more active back and forth with the Corporation Commission?” asked Hamon. “Could we have regulatory priorities that we could communicate to the Corporation Commission is some sort of way?”
Hamon recommended that the Council have a representative of OG&E come and answer questions from Councilors in an upcoming meeting.
David Greenwell, Ward 5 Councilor, also had concerns but suggested a different set solutions than either Hamon or Cooper.
He suggested that the problem was that OG&E was “a monopoly” and that there needed to be “more competition.” Greenwell complained that with only one electric company there wasn’t enough of an incentive to do better.
In fact, deregulation of power companies was tried in several states decades ago with mixed results.
Surprisingly, Greenwell used Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC) as an example of another company that provides excellent service to south OKC residents who are in the cooperative’s service area as a way of saying that other companies can compete successfully.
But, OEC is an electric cooperative owned by its consumers and pays dividends back to them instead of to shareholders on the stock exchange as OG&E does. It was established by New Deal programs in the 1930s.
Both companies are regulated by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission comprised of three commissioners who are elected by state-wide vote.
Jane Abraham gave a report on the current national and state legislative programs intended to represent the City of Oklahoma City’s interests.
The top priority for federal legislative issues was “Pandemic-related expenses and community support.”
The top priority for state legislative issues was “Local control over local issues.”
New additions to the efforts were suggested in light of the concerns about OG&E. There was some discussion between Abrahams and other councilors about including interaction with the Corporation Commission.
Here is the slide deck used in her presentation.Legislative-Issues-2021
Early in the meeting, City Manager Craig Freeman and Chris Browning, Utilities Director, gave updates on debris removal after the massive ice storm did so much damage to trees in the metro.
Browning reported that two contractors were being used to do storm debris removal and would start November 16.
Removal would start with the intersection of NW 23rd and Western and move out in four directions throughout the city.
Contractors will work Monday through Saturday 10-12 hours per day mostly during daylight hours.
City is estimating that the storm debris will come in at around 100,000 tons which is similar to the 2007 ice storm.
The first pass will take about 60 working days. The second pass will take about another 30 days.
Collections are for individual customers of the City and not for commercial customers, churches, HOAs and HOA common areas. However, HOA residents can have their debris picked up.
Ward 6 Councilor JoBeth Hamon asked about the costs of the removal. Browning said that they are estimating around $10 million dollars. That is around $8.5 million for removal and about $1.5 million for landfill fees.
Hamon asked about how the tree debris could be put to good use other than just filling up the landfill. Browning said that the landfill operator chips a number of trees and uses the mulch for erosion controll at the land fill. Typically, the City does not chip and distribute the material for mulch to residents because of the possibility of the spread of tree disease.
Such efforts for recovery from a storm usually result in FEMA reimbursing the City for their expenses but not until some time has passed. This, the City has to keep millions in reserve to pay contractors to pick up storm debris well before an FEMA money can come in.
Pedestrian and Bike Safety
Eric Wenger gave a presentation about improvements to intersections and streets that have been problematic for bike riders and pedestrians.
Western Ave from SW 3rd St. to NW 18th St. has been the target of a street enhancement program.
More bike lanes protected by soft but highly visible barriers are a part of the new plans as well as significant improvements to intersections to make crossing the street a safer proposition.
The project is being funded by the 2017 bond program.
See the Wenger’s full presentation below that has illustrations of the enhancements.Western-Ave-SW-3rd-to-NW-18th-Preliminary-Report-Nov-2020
Wenger also gave updates on the Better Streets Safer City program.
Recent improvement include more sidewalks and trails.
Small business assistance
Cathy O’Connor with the Economic Development Trust gave an update on the recipients of the first round of OKC Small Business Continuity Program that used CARES Act funds to distribute to a wide range of small businesses within the city limits of Oklahoma City.
She reported from a survey they did when the first part of the program was nearly complete. A wide range of businesses with different histories and situations had benefited from the program during the early hard days of the pandemic.
Some that had been in existence only few years and then ranged all the way to businesses that had been in existence for longer than 25 years.
The types of businesses were also very diverse.
See her presentation deck below that shows a wide array of responses from the recipients:OKC-SBCP-Survey-Report
Council seat elections
The Council passed a resolution setting up the next round of City Council ward seat elections.
Seats representing Wards 1, 3, 4, and 7 will be open for full four-year terms.
Filing period will be for Council candidates will be Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, December 7, 8, and 9, 2020.
The primary election will be Tuesday February 9, 2021 and the general election will be Tuesday, April 6, 2021.
Voters who live in the respective wards will be eligible to cast their ballot.
Here is the entire resolution that includes qualifications to serve as a City Council member:2021-election-wards-1-3-4-7-Reso
The next meeting of the City Council will be November 24 and will be in the City Council chamber unless the Oklahoma Legislature extends the pandemic variance to the Open Meetings Act.