The Oklahoma County Board of County Commissioners has been heavily criticized for transferring $34 million in CARES Act funding to the Oklahoma County Jail.

Image courtesy of Oklahoma County / Oklahoma County

Tempers flare after Oklahoma County sends CARES money to jail

  • Quinton Chandler
Oklahoma County commissioners conduct their August 19 meeting inside their board room.

Image courtesy of Oklahoma County / Oklahoma County

The Oklahoma County Board of County Commissioners has been heavily criticized for transferring millions in CARES Act funding to the Oklahoma County Jail.

A woman raising her three grandchildren in Bethany was facing eviction after she lost her job to the COVID-19 pandemic. She called Dan Straughan for help but he wasn’t sure what he could do. Straughan is executive director of the Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma City.

“She’s a perfect example of you ought to be able to use CARES money to prevent her and those three children from becoming homeless,” Straughan said.

The Homeless Alliance received about $632,000 in federal coronavirus relief funding, or CARES Act money, to help Oklahoma City residents avoid eviction and find new homes.

Thousands of Oklahomans have asked government entities and nonprofits like the Homeless Alliance for help with expenses like rent and utilities.

But the federal government has attached very strict rules to CARES money. One of Straughan’s rules is he can only spend money on residents of Oklahoma City. Bethany is a separate city in Oklahoma County.

CARES Act restrictions

“I can’t use the city money and I can’t use the state money,” Straughan said. “I can only use county money for that.”

Straughan hoped the county government would use some of the $47 million CARES Act grant it received from the federal government to help people who he can’t. But, the state’s most populous county is planning to spend the bulk of that relief package on its problematic jail.

The decision has angered county residents and raised questions about how pandemic relief money should be spent.

Straughan says without county CARES dollars there will be few options to help Oklahoma City’s neighbors who’ve been hit hard by the pandemic avoid losing their homes.

He says the county money could help people in “Harrah and Jones, Bethany and Warr Acres, and Midwest City and Del City.”

The county is spending $1.5 million on rental and mortgage assistance. But the amount pales in the face of the sheer number of people who could lose their homes.

According to the organization Open Justice Oklahoma, since the beginning of the pandemic more than 2,600 county residents have been threatened with eviction. The Oklahoma County Home Finance Authority is in charge of the county rental assistance money. The agency proposed spending a maximum of $8,000 on each approved applicant.

The agency will use the money to help people still in their homes pay bills. The program isn’t designed to assist people who need help getting inside a new home. More than 860 people in Oklahoma County have been evicted since the pandemic began.

CARES money for the jail

Instead of putting more money into social safety nets, the county’s board of commissioners decided to transfer about $40 million in CARES funds to help its troubled jail. The jail has been struggling with severe defects for years and is now in the middle of a dangerous COVID outbreak.

The move infuriated a number of county residents. Many have disrupted public meetings and demanded county leaders use the money to help residents struggling to make ends meet instead.

Oklahoma County Commissioner Carrie Blumert opposed the fund transfers. She says “voting on those items so quickly was a disservice to the taxpayers.”

First, Blumert voted against the board’s decision to send $6 million in CARES funds to the jail for staff pay, bonuses, and improvements to the building’s plumbing and ventilation. Then she vehemently opposed County Commissioner Kevin Calvey’s proposal to transfer another roughly $34 million.

But she was outnumbered both times. Calvey and County Commissioner Brian Maughan approved the transfers. Blumert says she understands why some county residents are angry about the decision and protested at the meetings.

“The way the vote was handled was disrespectful not only to me as a fellow commissioner but to the taxpayers and to our voters,” Blumert said.

A fast vote

Blumert says the board of county commissioners didn’t give the public enough opportunity to ask questions or voice opinions on the more than $34 million transfer. Blumert also claims Calvey rushed the vote to prevent her from opposing it.

The day of the vote Blumert was about a minute late to the meeting. One of her staff members took her place temporarily when Commissioner Calvey started the meeting without her.

“We’ve waited on Commissioner Calvey before, we’ve waited on Commissioner Maughan, we’ve waited on me to walk in one or two minutes late,” Blumert said. “It’s never been an issue.”

It took about a minute after the meeting began for the board to approve the transfer, despite one of its members being absent and her designated representative not casting a vote.

In a video of the meeting, Blumert’s representative can be heard saying he hasn’t voted and he has questions about the transfer. His protests were ignored.

How will the money be spent?

Blumert doesn’t believe so much CARES money should be spent on the jail. She and the county’s treasurer have both questioned whether the county’s jail trust can legally spend all the CARES money they’ve been given. She says she still hasn’t seen a detailed spending plan.

“It is our job as elected officials to ask as many questions as possible, have all the right documentation in place and to know that we are making solid decisions on behalf of our constituents,” Blumert said.

In it’s August 31 meeting, the trust voted to accept the $34 million transferred by the board of commissioners. Trustee Frances Ekwerekwu wanted to delay the vote because the nine-member panel still hadn’t been given a list of suggested expenses the CARES money could be used to cover.

She said she’d expected to have at least a rough itemized list of what the money might be spent on before the group accepted it.

The jail trust has already accepted the county commissioners’ suggestions on how to spend the $6 million initially received. The county commissioners’ also suggested they use some of the larger allocation to improve the jail’s medical facilities and otherwise make the building more COVID-resistant.

Commissioner Calvey has defended the larger transfer as a responsible decision. He has argued that the county commissioners need to take care of county operations before they consider trying to help others.

Other options

“As far as the other things that were proposed for this money,” Calvey said after a recent commissioners’ meeting, “other government entities are already doing those things, already doing it with federal CARES Act funds and they have a lot more than we do.”

Oklahoma City is spending more than $21 million in CARES funds to help its residents with housing, utilities and legal services. Those funds aren’t available to residents outside the city’s limits.

The state set aside $10 million in CARES money to help Oklahomans pay housing and utility costs. But that money is going to eligible applicants across all of Oklahoma.

The state could distribute more relief money to groups helping citizens or send it directly to Oklahoma County’s smaller cities, but Blumert says there are no guarantees. That’s why she pushed for more direct assistance from the county to nonprofits and businesses.

Blumert says nonprofits especially can be used to direct money and resources toward people who need help staying afloat during the pandemic.

“If we didn’t have our nonprofit community, a lot of people would lose their homes or lose their jobs or not have child care …,” Blumert said.

Dan Straughan is disappointed the county won’t be giving more money to help prevent evictions and house the homeless. The pandemic is ongoing and he expects there will be many more evictions this winter.

Sheltering people will also be more difficult. The highly contagious nature of the novel coronavirus will prevent the Homeless Alliance and other groups from relying solely on the limited shelter space they already house people in.

“Really the only answer to that is to acquire … or create a large shelter to take care of people in the winter,” Straughan said.

That shelter would be very expensive and Straughan believes government money is the most realistic way to pay for it.