County commissioner hopefuls to face off in July primary

By Traci Chapman
Published on June 21, 2008

Candidates vying for the District 2 County Commissioner spot are focusing on the July 29 primary, when the fate of at least some of the would-be county leaders may be determined.

The five contenders for the job — Republicans David Anderson, Richard Engle, Scott Gibson, Monty Keely and Theresa Ramsey — gave their positions recently on a variety of issues, from the future of the county jail to how to work with cities to accomplish road repairs.


In an election held May 13, voters across the county voted against a sales tax increase aimed at funding a $24.8 million jail; in April, Mustang voters declined a property tax increase designed to finance bond issues totaling about $8 million that would have rebuilt a portion of Czech Hall Road and funded a new baseball complex.

Candidates said the nation’s economy is in “turmoil,” and more taxes are the last thing residents want or need. With taxes being one way of funding projects in the county, candidates debated whether an increase would be the answer.

Anderson said increasing property values should mean more income for the county without needing to dip into residents’ pocketbooks.

“My knowledge of the financial needs of the county leads me to believe that revenues from taxes are increasing because property values are going up,” he said. “I would like to explore the possibilities for funding the jail without an additional tax being levied.”

Engle said he would not be in favor of increasing taxes “in any way. ... If the economy is growing, you have more revenues. Raising the tax rate actually has a negative result.”

Gibson said he believed the recent bond issues in Mustang and for the new county jail failed because of the economy, which he said is not improving.

“Bonds are about as cheap as you can get, and there are people who would advise you to keep your cash reserves, so that’s why government entities try to finance projects with them,” he said. “However, with things as they are, it’s clear we need to look at our projects and set out priorities without more tax.”

Keely said he would not be in favor of residents paying any increased taxes. Instead, he said, commissioners should focus on legislators’ allocation of fuel tax dollars across the state.

“The state is reaping a windfall because the cost of goods has gone up,” he said. “Rather than taking on extra projects, they (legislators) need to take money from the general fund and earmark it for streets and roads.”

Ramsey echoed Gibson’s thoughts about residents’ reluctance to approve more taxes.
“I don’t think sales tax is good right now. Gas prices are so high, and people are worried how they are going to pay for gas to get to and from work,” she said. “We need to find another way to pay for things.”

Interlocal agreements

District 2 includes portions of Mustang, Union City and Oklahoma City, as well as unincorporated areas. Because the county is limited by state law on financing road repairs for cities with populations in excess of 15,000, county officials have said one way commissioners can “untie their hands” is by pursuing interlocal agreements.

Those contracts allow the county to provide the materials and manpower to perform repairs in exchange for reimbursement by the city and could change residents’ “bumpy rides into smooth ones,” Keely said.

All five candidates said the district has fallen behind in its pursuit of interlocal agreements that could improve county roads.

Anderson said, “I am in favor of interlocal agreements, and I am also in favor of services provided to county residents.

“That does not mean the citizens who live in those areas are not county residents and do not have a voice in county government — if I can be a voice in a city councilman’s ear in this district,” he said. “I don’t want to see lines as dividing the county as much as I want to get across those to serve everyone in District 2.”

Engle said interlocal agreements could — and should — be used “extensively” throughout the county to improve failing roads.

“If you’re elected by the citizens of the district, you serve all of the citizens of the district. I don’t have a problem with being an advocate and getting those agreements put into place,” he said. “Czech Hall Road is a great example. It makes sense to work with the county and the cities to improve Czech Hall for a greater length than just the two miles Mustang tried to do. The way to do that is to work together.”

Gibson said with the county’s rapid growth, commissioners need to be proactive in keeping roads maintained and repaired.

“This is a growing county that has to have cooperation amongst all government entities,” he said. “If we don’t, we’re not making the most of our county resources.”

Keely said the commissioner needs to act as a “liaison” to make sure things get done.

“For too long, it’s been put back on the cities that they’re not taking care of the roads, but the citizens living in those boundaries are still county residents,” he said. “The cities need someone to let them know what’s going on and when residents aren’t being heard on these streets, and the commissioner needs to be strong enough to keep pushing, even if they meet resistance.”

Ramsey said she thinks it is “great” to do interlocals with the cities, particularly since the county added a hold-harmless provision protecting it from liability in the case of an accident.

“The other two districts do interlocals,” she said. “If the cities will work with the county — it has been done in the district before.”

Mileage form requirements

Commissioners currently turn in mileage forms with no description or destination, prompting some residents to question if there is complete accountability in that area. With almost $38,000 in travel expenses paid to commissioners in 2007, candidates said the forms should include more information.

Anderson said listing a destination could be a problem for commissioners because of the sheer volume of driving they could do on a daily basis, but “I think the commissioners should be accountable for the mileage they’re turning in, and I would be in favor of a description.”

Engle said commissioners needed to be “fully accountable” to residents of any expenses charged to the county.

“We need to have very clear full disclosure for what we’re asking the taxpayers to pay,” he said. “After all, it’s their money we’re spending.”
Gibson said the form should be changed, and county commissioners should follow “regular business” procedures.

“We need to be able to account to residents about how we’re spending the county’s funds,” he said.

Keely said he believed commissioners’ mileage forms should meet Internal Revenue Service guidelines.

“When I did mine (as former commissioner), I had a code that basically would give that information. I documented very detailed information about how many miles I went and where and what I was doing,” he said. “I think the county needs to be handled in the same way as I handle my construction business.”

Ramsey said county mileage forms can show more details — “I think we have just gotten a little more lax over the years.”

County jail

After a bond issue for a proposed $24.8 million county jail was rejected by voters, county officials said they must “go back to square one” to find an option to repair the existing facility and ease overcrowding issues.

Anderson said he would start with repairing the current jail while looking at the size of a new facility.

“I would like to see the county start with something — to go from a 70-something bed facility to a 260-plus bed facility is a big step. I just don’t think the county voters are that confident in those numbers. There’s been a lot of talk about building something that could be expanded and try to stay away from an increase in taxes,” he said. “If it costs $250,000 to fix the jail, let’s fix the jail because this new jail is not going to happen overnight. We need to make sure the county is not exposed to any kind of fine or penalty while we’re fixing the problem.”

Engle said commissioners and the county sheriff need to work “more closely together” to figure out how to solve the problem.

“I think everyone knows we have a bad situation, but raising taxes isn’t the way to fix it,” he said. “We need to look at all of our options and determine the best course of action from here.”

Gibson said he wanted to study the issue because he wasn’t privy to the information available to the current commissioners when they decided to send the failed bond proposal to voters in May. A lower price tag for a facility was “important,” he said.

“We need to look at the jail we’ve got and what we’re going to do with it,” he said. “Maybe we could rehab the current jail for high security and look at the dormitory idea, as (sheriff’s candidate) Randall Edwards proposed, for lower security — I think that’s an intriguing idea.”

Keely questioned not only the plan proposed to voters, but the location of the existing jail.

“I think the area they’re looking at is a bad location because you have no real opportunity to expand. People want a jail that’s out away from them,” he said. “I think it’s possible to use a bivouac environment between April and October, like Arizona does.

“We need to renovate the jail that’s there now,” he said. “The maintenance there has been an issue for some time. It needs to be done irregardless of what else we do — we need to fix the roof, fix the plumbing and do the remedial things that need to be done. Even if we decide to build something else, we need to get that fixed now.”

Ramsey said she didn’t have an answer on how to move forward with a county jail now.

“I know we need a new jail — I just don’t think ad valorem is the way to go,” she said.

City/county relationship

In the days leading up to the May 13 jail vote, Yukon City Manager Jim Crosby said county officials did not work with the cities to find a “good way” to finance the jail.

After the measure was defeated, Crosby said he wanted to see “a better flow of information” between the cities and the county. Candidates said the lines of communication needed to be improved to help all residents.

Anderson said he believed the county and cities could work “a lot more closely” with each other, and he said he did not like the attitude that anything in one of the county’s cities is “not the problem” of a commissioner.

“I think that for the county to say just because a road is in the city limits, I’m not touching it — well, I think that’s a divisive way to treat the citizens. Both the county and the city have a responsibility to that person,” he said. “As an example of cooperation between the county and the cities, Mustang’s need for a new little league ball field — as commissioner I would be willing to look at the possibility of doing the work the county is equipped to do, such as dirt work and site work. These kids playing on those fields are Canadian County residents.”

Engle said county officials need to be the “leaders in a better working relationship” with the cities.

“It is the county’s responsibility to set up that very good working relationship with the cities. The county is the arch — it behooves the county to create that atmosphere,” he said.

Gibson said he questioned how much county and city officials were getting together to “share ideas. We need meetings to get on the same page,” he said.

Keely said during his term as District 2 Commissioner, he attended city council meetings in Mustang, Union City and Oklahoma City.

“That way you can develop a rapport with the municipalities,” he said. “I routinely went in to talk to their city managers. As things come up, most of that stuff starts out as a conversation about whether I can help you get something done.”

Ramsey said the key to working more closely with cities was communication and interlocal agreements.

“If we can get those agreements in place, we can work on what needs to be done together,” she said.

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