By KEVIN CANFIELD
Jim Orbison is the epitome of a gentleman lawyer if there ever was one, but Wednesday morning he seemed to have had enough.
Nearly an hour into a Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority budget meeting, the tall, white-haired attorney for the authority raised his hand to remind trustees unhappy with the budgeting process – and Tulsa Jail operations in general – that they had another option.
“This authority can totally take control of that (jail) administration, take it from the county, hire staff, do its own financials, do everything … say goodbye to the county,” Orbison said. “I just want that out.”
Orbison’s frustration was prompted in part by a letter three trustees sent to their fellow authority members on Monday seeking to have Wednesday’s meeting cancelled and the budget process overhauled. The letter claims that jail funds had been used improperly for travel, training, automobiles, legal fees and other categories not related to jail operations.
As previously reported by The Frontier, the Sheriff’s Office spent at least $700,000 since 2012 to pay outside law firms to defend civil rights lawsuits. (The mayors’ letter states the amount is actually closer to $1 million.)
“We can all point fingers and make accusations – and I am referring to that letter, quite frankly – but what do you want?” Orbison said. “I guess what I am saying is, if you are unhappy, come up with something that makes you happy. Come up with a process of administration for the citizens of this county with regard to the jail.”
Owasso Mayor and authority Trustee Jeri Moberly defended the letter, which she signed, saying it was intended to help change the jail’s administrative processes.
Orbison disagreed, noting that the letter called for cancelling Wednesday’s meeting and investigating jail budgeting procedures.
“That is not the process I am talking about,” he said.
Ultimately, the authority voted 4-2 to approve a $28.2 million budget – $8.3 million shy of what the sheriff says it will actually cost to operate the jail next year. Tulsa County will be responsible for making up the difference.
Sand Springs Mayor Mike Burdge joined Moberly in voting against the budget.
Voting in favor of it were County Commissioners Ron Peters, Karen Keith, John Smaligo and Momoduo Ceesay of Glenpool.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett, who signed the letter along with Moberly and Burdge, was not at the meeting. Bartlett is part of a state delegation of officials attending the Paris Air Show.
Burdge and Moberly said after the meeting that they want the budgeting process to be more comprehensive and transparent before they would feel comfortable voting on a budget.
In Owasso and Sand Springs, they have noted, city officials have months to decipher and question budgets before voting on them. That does not happen with the authority budget, they contend.
“We are overseeing the citizens’ tax dollars and if we are not asking questions, we are not doing our job,” Moberly said.
Bartlett has led the push to have the authority be more involved in the creation and oversight of the authority budget.
But Keith questioned the timing of mayor’s concern, noting that it coincided with the start of the city’s negotiations with the county on a new contract to hold municipal inmates in the jail.
The parties have been without a deal since July 2014.
“The mayor was not engaged in this process previous to that contract and was seldom” at authority meetings, Keith said.
From 2010 through 2012, Barlett missed 26 of 37 authority meetings, according to county records. He made 12 of 30 meetings in 2013 and 2014. This year, he’s missed just two meetings, including Wednesday’s.
All the upheaval on the authority notwithstanding, incremental changes are being made to the budgeting process.
After questions were raised about which funds could be used to pay for jail operations, the authority agreed to limit funding to the quarter-cent jail sales tax, commissary profits and revenue from the city’s contract to hold municipal inmates in the jail.
That’s why the budget approved by the authority Wednesday matched expected revenue from those sources in fiscal year 2016.
The $28 million is expected to cover the top two funding priorities established by the authority – detention personnel and deputies and management – and most of the third, medical services.
The remainder, including food, will be the county’s responsibility.