County Election Board office

Amanda Bryant works at her desk at the Cleveland County Election Board. After the county commissioners made a move to purchase all stories of the Financial Center, the question now moves to which offices will occupy the spaces.

As two Cleveland County commissioners move to purchase a six-floor office building, county department heads and other elected officials are left to wonder which offices will occupy it.

Chairman Darry Stacy and District 3 Commissioner Harold Haralson voted to pursue a $7.3 million contract for the Financial Center (FC), previously known as the Vista Building, 111 N. Peters Ave.

District 1 Rod Cleveland voted no on the multi-floor purchase contract of the third and fifth floors of the building and no on the subsequent decision to acquire the remaining floors, The Transcript previously reported.

The pair have yet to disclose which county offices will use empty space at the FC but cited a 2015 County Complex Master Plan that noted a growing need for office space as the county population rises.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports a 9.2% increase, or a growth of 23,519 in county population, from 2010 to 2020. However, the rate of population growth has cooled. Census records show population growth of nearly 25% from 2000 to 2010, but less than 10% from 2010 to 2020, which is also below the 300,000 population mark forecasted by the county’s 2015 County Complex Master Plan.

“We are already behind the curve in what we need for Cleveland County offices and courthouse space, including county commissioners,” Stacy said.

Haralson said the building would suit anticipated needs well into the future. Twenty years ago, the county didn’t have some of the departments it has today, like the IT division.

“In 2015, the county commissioned a study and masterplan to assess the needs of our county,” he said. “Additional office space, staffing needs and other factors for each department were part of that consideration. We also know that the need for at least one more courtroom may be needed to handle our caseload.”

The master plan included a report that assessed employment growth projections for a multi-county Central Oklahoma Workforce Investment Area, of which Cleveland County accounts for 22%. Jobs in information, manufacturing, federal and state employment were expected to decrease by as much as 14.7%. Local government jobs show a marginal or flat growth rate, according to a chart in the study.

The judiciary is growing, according to Chief District Judge Jeff Virgin. Judges often swap courtrooms for large juries and ballooned dockets.

He also expects that another special judge will be added to the county, he said.

If more room for judicial operations is needed, it could mean other departments will move out of the courthouse to make room, or the county could be forced to revisit adding on to the complex yet again.

The Transcript asked all eight elected county officials, the district judiciary, the district attorney’s office, the election board, and the health department if they would be willing to use office space in the FC building. Only one elected official said he had use for the space at the FC building: Cleveland County Sheriff Chris Amason, whose office occupies the top floor.

“The Sheriff’s Office does have a need for more space at the Financial Center,” said Joy Hampton, spokesman for Amason. “Sheriff Amason had communicated that with the Board of County County Commissioners prior to the BOCC entering into a contract to purchase the building.

“We downsized considerably when we moved from our previous offices in the old Chase Bank building, which has since been demolished.”

Hampton pointed out that the department went from 16,251 square feet to 7,000 at the FC building.

“Our current accommodations are a tight fit both in our need for more office space and more storage space,” she said.

Amason said he supports the commissioners’ decision to purchase the FC.

The matter was not presented to the Budget Board or related committees. Stacy and Haralson voted to dissolve the board in March, but the move will not become effective until June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Other elected officials said they had not been contacted about their office needs, and as members of the budget board, would have voted no on the purchase.

Cou

nty Election Board

The CCSO isn’t the only office running out of room.

While employees, paperwork and equipment have the Cleveland County Election Board packed tight, space at the Financial Center would be impractical, said Election Board Secretary Bryant Rains.

Large delivery trucks make use of a drive-around parking lot and loading ramps at the board’s current facility to load and unload voting ballot machines and other supplies.

The board uses the nearby fairgrounds for election operations, too.

Rains said he expects the need for staff to increase over time as more people move to the county. If proposed election laws to tighten security pass, the board will eventually require more staff, he said.

County clerk

Cleveland County Clerk Tammy Belinson said while the need for more room in her office continues to grow, moving to the FC building was not practical, and approached a violation of state law.

The custodian of court records “shall protect the records of his office” and “it shall be unlawful for any officer elected or appointed under the laws of the state to keep the books, papers record or other public property used in his office, at any place other than that in which he required by law to keep said office,” state law reads.

Court clerk

Court Clerk Marilyn Williams said although she does not need more staff, room for document storage is a chief concern. Her office is constantly maintaining more paperwork, some of which must be stored for anywhere from one to 50 years.

“There are approximately 27,000 new cases filed at the Cleveland County District Court each year, so we need more space every year,” she said.

Files are stored throughout the courthouse and at a storage facility in Oklahoma City.

Treasurer and assessor

County Treasurer Jim Reynolds and County Assessor Doug Warr said they need no additional space for either personnel or storage. Both were strongly opposed to the purchase.

State law allows commissioners to purchase property for county use, but Reynolds said in the past, this purchase would have been deliberated as a courtesy to the other elected officials. Those days are over.

“To the best of my knowledge, neither the assessor, court clerk, county clerk or myself — the four elected officials who spend more time on the courthouse complex and utilize more space here than all others — were not asked our thoughts or needs assessment,” Reynolds said. “The question must be asked and asked often: Who are the consultants, if any, that the commissioners are getting advice from? During the last two years, discussions of this magnitude were openly discussed with each of the elected officials, in private discussions and open meetings. It was a unified team effort working for the betterment of the county, as it should be.”

Stacy said with existing leases in place, the county’s use for the building will offset the cost of the building.

“Purchasing the Financial Center will allow us to grow into the space it provides while still receiving some income from the current tenants of that space,” he said. “We have no intention of going into the office rental business, but this situation provides an opportunity to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Estimating on the high side of new construction costs, savings could be upwards of $16 million if we make use of the Financial Center rather than moving forward with new construction.”

While the FC is approximately 75% full of tenants, according to Cleveland, commercial real estate brokers who specialize in leases say the market is falling as more people work from home permanently and businesses look to cut costs while their enterprises continue to hemorrhage revenue.

According to Moody’s Analytics, the vacancy rate for office spaces will rise to 19.4% in 2021, surpassing the previous record of 17.6% from 2010 and holding steady in 2022, The Transcript reported previously.

Requests for comment from the district attorney and health department on its office space needs were not returned.

Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at mwood@normantranscript.com or 405-416-4420.

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