Tulsa County: June 2012 Archives

CassidyTandy.JPGTulsa County Clerk Earlene Wilson is retiring after 12 years in the office. Three candidates are running for the Republican nomination to replace Wilson: Pat Key, Dean Martin, and Cassidy Tandy. It is the only contested county election, and the winner of the Republican primary will win the seat -- only Republicans filed for the office. I will be voting for Cassidy Tandy.

She has eight years experience as a county employee, but Cassidy Tandy, a senior appraiser in the County Assessor's office, is the youngest of the three candidates, which is a distinct plus in this race, as the Tulsa County Clerk's office has long been in desperate need of a new, public-centered approach to maintaining public records. Tandy is of the generation that expects information, especially government information, to be readily available online, and that expectation informs her vision for the County Clerk's office. As she wrote in reply to my question:

I would like to see substantial reform in the manner in which public information is made available to the taxpayers. Currently there are only two methods in which to obtain public documents and information from the Clerk's office. One is to physically drive downtown or to a branch of the public library, and the other is to pay for a subscriber based service at a monthly rate.

In today's fast-paced and business-driven environment, timing can be very important. Easier access to records, without giving up proprietary information, should be made available quickly and without charge. The taxpayers have already paid for the technology, and the infrastructure is in place to allow such a delivery method. Why should taxpayers be burdened with additional out-of-pocket expenses for the cost of a one-time, off-the-shelf software purchase or a program that can be administered in house?

The inconvenience of driving to the county courthouse to get complete information about property transactions is no accident, sadly. It's part of the philosophy of the incumbent, a philosophy I assume is shared by Key, the current deputy. The incumbent administration seems to see public access as a problem to be managed, not as an opportunity to serve the public interest. There's a stark difference between the openness and ease of access to be found on the Oklahoma County Clerk's website compared to what you find on the Tulsa County Clerk's website.

Under Pat Key's leadership at the County Clerk's office, if you want online access to complete Tulsa County land records in the LRMIS system, not only do you have to pay a monthly fee, you have to appear before the county commission and ask their permission.

It's a telling detail: Pat Key's campaign doesn't even have a website. Do we really want a keeper of public records who acts like the internet doesn't exist?

Tandy also wants to make all county expenditures and financial data readily available online. The idea of posting the government's checkbook online, with the ability to search individual transactions, is spreading to state, county, and municipal governments across the country.

She also points out a serious deficiency in the County Clerk's online databases -- the absence of the parcel number, which is used by the County Assessor's office and the County Treasurer's office to track land valuation and taxation. By law this same parcel number should be available for searching County Clerk land records, too, but it's not available in the Tulsa County Clerk system acquired by the Wilson/Key administration.

Beyond the specific responsibilities of the County Clerk, she also serves as a member of the Tulsa County Budget Board. As we saw last week, that's another area where more openness and accountability is required. County Assessor Ken Yazel was the only one of the county's eight elected officials to stand up for a budget that covers all county expenditures, not just the tiny percentage in the general fund. Tandy shares Yazel's commitment to open and complete information to the taxpayer, as opposed to the frustrating resistance to greater and more accessible public disclosure on the part of the Wilson/Key administration.

Long-time readers will know that I've long been frustrated by the Earlene Wilson/Pat Key administration's foot-dragging on public disclosure. (Here's a complaint from 2004, a response to a March 2009 Journal Record column by Ted Streuli titled "Tulsa County Clerk Earlene Wilson is picking your pocket," and a concern raised this year when Pat Key might not draw an opponent.) Pat Key was Wilson's deputy throughout Wilson's tenure as County Clerk and never raised a public objection, as far as I've found, to Wilson's access-thwarting policies.

Land records play an important role in knowing what's going on around Tulsa and are also an important historic resource. As a blogger with a day job, I need access whenever I have time to research and write, which is not during the county clerk's regular business hours. The current system favors those in the real estate and development industry to the disadvantage of the individual citizen.

Another County Clerk responsibility is acting as secretary to the county's boards and commissions. You will look in vain on the Earlene Wilson/Pat Key county clerk's website for meeting minutes or detailed backup material for meeting agendas online. We expect that sort of detail on the Tulsa City Council's website, and we ought to expect it from the county as well.

We need a change in the Tulsa County Clerk's office. We need a candidate who gets the importance of internet access to public records to an informed public. As Tulsa County Clerk, Cassidy Tandy will bring online transparency and accessibility to Tulsa County's public records. Please join me in voting for her in the June 26, 2012, primary.

Boondoggle Blog's Don Wyatt has posted audio of the Tulsa County Budget Board meeting on June 7, 2012.

The Budget Board is made up of the three county commissioners and the five county-wide elected officials: Assessor, Treasurer, Clerk, Court Clerk, and Sheriff. (Although our District Attorney serves only Tulsa County, most DA districts are multi-county, and the office is considered a state, not county, office.)

Wyatt argued very politely, from the law and from the principle of transparency, that the budget being considered by the board should cover more than the roughly $66 million general fund. Another citizen, Naomi Koehn, urged allocating more money to public safety in order to retain sheriff's deputies.

Wyatt said that it seemed to him that the budget as it is, underrepresents the scope of county operations. He compared the $64 million in last year's budget to the amount listed in the Excise Board Appropriated Funds Report and the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, issued following the close of each fiscal year, that puts county spending at roughly $256 to $258 million. Wyatt said it was arguable that the county should go a step further and include in the budget all ad valorem taxes, upwards of $600 million. (I'd go yet another step and include revenues and expenditures of the Tulsa County Industrial Authority, the Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority, and the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority, and any other county authority handling public money.)

Wyatt pointed out that Oklahoma County's budget is three times bigger than Tulsa County's and includes revenues that Tulsa County excludes -- beginning fund balances (money not spent in the previous year) and special revenues such as federal grants, inmate boarding fees from the state and municipalities, and resale properties. The FY 2011-2012 Oklahoma County budget covers $166.5 million, although the general fund revenues are only $67.8 million, slightly higher than Tulsa County's equivalent figure.

Wyatt also noted a disconnect between the number of employees listed in the budget and the general fund. For example, the sheriff's office budget request is $9.1 million, but the sheriff's office has over 600 employees. That works out to about $15,000 per employee, and obviously that isn't all the revenue the sheriff has available to pay his people and cover other expenses. Sheriff Stanley Glanz said that they used to include other revenues in the budget.

The comment is made -- although at the moment I can't find it again -- that the budget board can't reallocate surplus funds belonging to one of the elected officials. Once money has been allocated to a county official's fiefdom, that official has complete discretion to spend any surplus, and the budget board has no power to reallocate those funds toward more urgent needs. If that's the case, that's yet another example of the lack of checks and balances built into Oklahoma's one-size-fits-all model of county government.

MORE: Further on in the tape, starting about 1:10, there's a discussion of the city's stadium district assessment on county-owned properties, and whether the county budget board ought to protest the assessment. (The general sentiment is to allow big private landowners to carry the water and make the case for a smaller increase in the downtown authority's budget.)

KenYazel.jpgTulsa County Assessor Ken Yazel would like you to focus your attention to how Tulsa County officials are managing your money. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and there's nothing like intense public scrutiny to encourage elected officials to find ways to economize and to discourage them from cutting corners.

One of Yazel's concerns is that Tulsa County's budget doesn't cover all funds that pass through the county's hands. For one example, the conduit loans handled by the Tulsa County Industrial Authority don't even rate a mention. For another example, the county sales tax of 1.017% is not included in the budget, even though it brings in more money (about $80 million per year) than is accounted for in the official budget.

I would copy the text in the Tulsa County 2012-2013 Budget that explains why sales tax revenues are excluded from the official budget, but the PDF is locked so that text can't be copied for pasting elsewhere. How odd is that? So you'll have to read it for yourself -- it's on page 68 of the PDF. You will look in vain for a total amount of sales tax collected this current fiscal year or estimated for the coming fiscal year. My $80 million estimate comes from a line graph on that page, showing monthly receipts ranging from $6 to $8 million a month.

So here's an open letter to Tulsa County citizens from County Assessor Ken Yazel, calling on people to show up at the public hearing this coming Thursday, June 7, 2012, at 2:00 pm.

If you believe we're Taxed Enough Already, if you want all county revenue accounted for in the budget process, if you want to be sure that all county expenditures are transparent, Thursday is a great opportunity to express your concerns to your elected officials.

Dear Citizen,

Remember how much fun you had last year about this time when 20 or more attended a meeting at Tulsa County to observe County Fiscal actions?

This Thursday you can participate at an earlier stage of the budget process; namely, a 'Public Hearing' on the County Budget.

As many as possible to Should attend this Thursday afternoon for the Special Budget Board Meeting. The agenda has not yet been posted for this meeting, but I expect this will be the meeting where the Budget Board hears public input and may on short consideration of any public input approve the Tulsa County Budget for next year (Fiscal Year 2012-2013, beginning July 1, 2012). The input by the public deserves longer consideration so come and voice your concerns.

Remember the outrageous deception in their budget last year...the ones protested by the Tulsa Tax Task Force and which are still proceeding through the Court of Tax Review?

Well, it looks like they're producing the same kind of budget again this year with the same lack of concern for the legal directives and common sense for including 'all' funds managed by the County. They've already published the budget in the paper last week, declaring only about $67 million. We all know that the budget should account for at least 4 times this much, including the carryover funds, the projected taxes and the projected fees that are certain to be paid by the citizens and should be budgeted.

What will it take to pressure or shame our elected officials into following the law?

When: Thursday afternoon, June 7, at 2:00 in Room 119 of the Tulsa County Administration Building, 500 S. Denver.

Please make every effort to be there. Our elected officials need to know we're paying attention.

This past week, Talk Radio 1170 KFAQ's Pat Campbell spoke to a Tulsa County commissioner, the Tulsa County assessor, the mayor, the chairman of the City Council, a former city councilor, and a Tulsa Metro Chamber official this last week about the proposed Tulsa County tax increase to fund airport improvements and to create a $75 million "Close the Deal" fund.

It was interesting to hear County Commissioner Fred Perry respond to County Assessor Ken Yazel's assertions about surplus county funds and Campbell's well-taken point that many of those funds are under the control of boards that have no direct accountability to the voters. Under firm questioning by Campbell, Perry ultimately acknowledged that these officials are mostly beyond the voters' reach.

The members of the Tulsa City-County Library Commission and the Tulsa City-County Board of Health are appointed by the Mayor of Tulsa (confirmed by the City Council) and the Tulsa County Board of Commissioners. The Tulsa Community College Board of Regents are appointed by the Governor of Oklahoma. The seven members of Tulsa Technology Center Board of Education are elected by the voters, but at the low-turnout February school elections, and with seven-year rotating terms, it would take four years to change a bare majority of the board.

Each of these four bodies has a dedicated millage -- a share of the property taxes you pay. The millage appears to be ample to meet each entity's operating needs and then some, even when sales-tax dependent city governments are hurting from economic downturns.

The good news is that each body is insulated from having their funds reallocated for other governmental purposes. When elected officials try to balance priorities across all the different ways government could be spending our tax dollars, the funds controlled by the libraries, the health department, the community college, and the vo-tech school are off limits.

The bad news is that each body is insulated from having their funds reallocated for other governmental purposes. So even if there's a crying need for more police detectives or funds to open the city swimming pools, the surplus for these entities can't be touched to help. Instead, the surplus might be used for facility expansion -- say, a new building.

When these entities run a perennial surplus, when they take in more than they can reasonably spend, it's worth asking the question: How would we go about adjusting the permanent millage for these entities, to make space in the total property tax burden for more pressing needs? Is the governing board (unelected in three of four cases) the only body that can put a millage rate reduction on the ballot? Can the County Commissioners do it? Can it be done by initiative petition?

Or maybe there's a way that these entities could donate surplus monies on a year-by-year basis into a rainy day fund available to level out the dips in revenue for sales-tax dependent cities and towns. Of course, that would likely just give the protected-millage entities the incentive to spend every mill to keep it from going into the fund.

Perry made an interesting point about the way the Vision 2025 ballot was split up, and that some of any Vision 2025 sales tax surplus might not be usable for the airport projects being discussed. But the ballot title categories for each of the three taxes that went into effect are broad enough that I imagine they can fit each proposed expenditure into one or another -- "TO FUND CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS FOR THE PURPOSE OF PROMOTING ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT", "TO FUND EDUCATIONAL, HEALTH CARE AND EVENTS FACILITIES FOR THE PURPOSE OF PROMOTING ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT", "FOR THE PURPOSE OF CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS FOR COMMUNITY ENRICHMENT".

Perry used his last minute decrying a statement by Ken Yazel as "outrageous," "despicable," "irresponsible." According to Perry, Yazel "basically said that commissioners bring these kind of proposals forward -- first of all, we didn't bring this proposal forward, but -- commissioners have these bond issues and bond refinancing and put tax issues out there to benefit their friends, to benefit people that get the fees, that get the fees from the issuing." Perry said people ought to challenge Yazel to prove his allegation.

Here's what Yazel said the day before in a call to KFAQ:

What is driving this is how big can we make the bond issues so we get the bond fees generated so that people who really want to make money can make money, and it has nothing to do with the benefit of the taxpayers; it has more to do with generating these bonds. And by the way, follow the money, but follow the fees. If they go into an authority, they're one step removed from the taxpayers authority, and it's even worse once they do a contract for non-competitive bond fees. Do you know where they're going and who's benefitting? No. It can't be audited, and it's a shame, and they ought to get out of that business.These people, in my opinion, don't care about the project, they care about generating fees.

I raised similar concerns last week.

The Tulsa County Commissioners, as the board members of the Tulsa County Industrial Authority, could easily dispel the concerns Yazel expresses by publishing on the internet a full accounting of the money handled by TCIA, including the funds raised by the Vision 2025 and Four to Fix the County sales taxes, as well as conduit loans that aren't tied to tax revenue. Contracts between the TCIA and their vendors and advisers, etc., should also be disclosed online.

Every dollar has a destination. Some dollars went directly to program costs, for example, the annual payment to the Oklahoma Aquarium. Some dollars are repaying bondholders -- those can be further divided into principal, interest, and fees. The money received from the sale of bonds should likewise Some dollars may have been used to pay support contractors -- perhaps program managers, bond attorneys, bond advisers, bond underwriters. Some dollars may be sitting in an account in reserve -- those can be divided into reserves for specific projects or for future debt service. All of that should be spelled out, online, broken out by payee. And if a payee is an LLC, as taxpayers we deserve to have a list of owners of more than, say, a 5% share. Then let the taxpayers weigh that information for themselves.

MORE: I appreciate Pat Campbell's pursuit of this issue and his willingness to ask pointed questions of these elected officials. You can find all of Pat Campbell's interviews here; here are direct links to the specific interviews:

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa County category from June 2012.

Tulsa County: May 2012 is the previous archive.

Tulsa County: July 2012 is the next archive.

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