The Frontier

Tulsa County’s quarter-cent jail sales tax may be used to pay for the day-to-day functions required or permitted by law to operate the Tulsa Jail, according to a state Attorney General’s opinion issued Thursday.

“We got exactly what we wanted, exactly what we wanted,” said attorney Jim Orbison.

Orbison represents the Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority, which oversees operation of the jail.

He and the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office requested the opinion after the city of Tulsa and other municipalities that use the jail questioned how the sales tax was being spent. Among the expenditures challenged were funding for legal fees to fight lawsuits against the sheriff, court services and court guards.

To support its position, the municipalities cited a 2014 Attorney General’s opinion regarding sales tax revenues used to finance, construct and equip a juvenile detention facility.

The opinion notes that the state Constitution states: “No tax levied and collected for one purpose shall ever be devoted to another purpose.”

In that case, the AG found that the sales tax could be used only to maintain and fix the actual structure, not to fund services provided within the building.

Orbison argued that the Canadian County opinion pertained only to Canadian County and the juvenile facility. He requested the AG’s opinion to clarify the matter.

“They took a very narrow approach to what operations means” in the Canadian County opinion, said Orbison.

Thursday’s opinion regarding the Tulsa County jail sales tax, by contrast, appears to provide a broader interpretation of how the tax can be spent.

“I interpret it to say that the sales tax can be used and spent” for items pertaining the operation of the jail, Orbison said. “I think it says what it says.”

That would include legal fees and any other expenses authorized by the Criminal Justice Authority, Orbison said.

However expenditures out of jail funds are currently approved by county commissioners, not the jail authority.

City of Tulsa attorney David O’Meilia sent an email to The Frontier in response to the opinion.

“In Tulsa County,  the County’s handling of the jail sales tax revenues has become a mechanism utilized by the Sheriff and the BOCC to conceal their misapplication of the jail sales tax revenues for things other than the day-to-day operations of the jail. “

Tulsa County voters in September 1995 approved a 5/12ths percent sales tax to acquire land, build a jail and fund ongoing operations of the jail. After the jail was constructed and paid for, the tax was reduced to one-quarter percent to be used solely for jail operations.

The Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority is a seven-member board that oversees the tax made up of the three county commissioners and four area mayors. Three of the mayors — Dewey Bartlett, Owasso Mayor Jeri Moberly and Sand Springs Mayor Mike Burdge — signed a 41-page letter outlining their concerns about how jail funds are being spent.

On Monday, the Sand Springs City Council voted to authorize the city to pursue a lawsuit against the county and Criminal Justice Authority over how jail funds are spent and allocated.