A proposed Cleveland County sales tax measure apparently is receiving rave reviews as elected officials make their pitch to civic and community groups.
Sheriff Todd Gibson and Cleveland County Commissioners Rod Cleveland and Darry Stacy said they've talked to several organizations and have heard only positive comments on the public safety proposal. The measure would allow the county to collect one-eighth of a cent for every dollar spent.
No formal opposition to the sales tax has surfaced yet, the elected officials said.
"I haven't heard of any push back," Cleveland said.
The county currently has a quarter-cent sales tax dedicated to the jail, but that tax will end in March.
The Nov. 12 issue, if approved by voters, would help fund the continued operation and maintenance of the F. Dewayne Beggs Detention Center, provide upgrades to the Cleveland County Regional Detention Center and its juvenile programs, better equip rural fire districts and increase county deputy pay.
Gibson said the Alan J. Couch Center, the juvenile detention facility, has not had substantial improvements since it was built in 1991.
"We will take a portion of that sales tax and reinvigorate that facility and then provide educational and therapeutic programs and help turn [juvenile offenders] around," he said.
Gibson said he believes it's important to "invest in kids early" so they don't enter adult correctional facilities later in life.
County commissioners, who oversee the juvenile facility, will need to "carve out" new space at the center that is conducive for juvenile programming, Cleveland said.
The county commissioners have contracted with Community Works since 2006 to manage and operate the juvenile facility. Community Works is a full-service behavioral and mental health agency that provides licensed mental health professionals to perform initial assessment, ongoing mental health needs and risk assessments of juveniles.
Services include education, substance abuse counseling, mental health counseling and health care. Medical services are not included.
Meanwhile, the proposed increased pay for deputies has been included in the funding measure because the county is losing several lawmen each year to bigger agencies that offer higher salaries and better benefits.
"We need to be competitive in the marketplace and help retain the people we've trained," Gibson said. "We've lost as many as 11 to 12 deputies when Norman or Oklahoma City offer an academy."
The county jail, which opened in 2012, was built with funds voters approved in 2008 after they passed a quarter-cent sales tax. The bonds, which had a 20-year maturity date, were paid off early as commissioners voted to refinance the bonds at lower interest rates. That move saved taxpayers $17 million in interest payments and nearly 10 years of bond payments.
When the current bonds are paid off in March, that also will end the portion of the tax currently designated for jail maintenance and operations.
Commissioner Cleveland said the quarter-cent sales tax generated about $7 million a year, which included an estimated $2 million for jail operations and maintenance.
The sheriff said he has presented "straightforward and factual" information designed to inform civic groups about the importance of renewing part of the current sales tax.
"We run an effective and efficient jail, which helps lower crime and helps the community," he said.
Stacy believes it's critical voters approve the sales tax measure next month so the county can take "the next step into true criminal justice reform" while also providing the rural fire departments with needed equipment.
The fire departments will apply for grants that provide the funding for firefighting equipment. Any department in Cleveland County will be eligible to apply for the grants.
The one-eighth of a cent sales tax will expire after 20 years, Stacy said.
"We want to be held accountable by the citizens and how we use it and be good stewards of their money," he said, in reference to the 20-year time period. "If they don't like how we've done things then they'll have a chance to make a change."