By Traci Chapman
Two former commissioners are part of a group that late Friday filed a lawsuit in Canadian County District Court against current office holders David Anderson, Jack Stewart and Phil Carson concerning the .35 of one cent sales tax allocated to the county’s children’s justice center.
Long-time commissioners Don Young and Stanley Wallace, as well as Canadian County Citizens Advisory Board members John Bickerstaff, Sandra Bohannon, Mary K. Hollingsworth, Kent Mathers and Linda Ramey and Canadian County Sheriff Randall Edwards, are listed as plaintiffs in the injunctive action. The Board of County Commissioners is listed as a defendant, with all three current commissioners named both individually and in their roles as elected officials.
Filed by attorneys Mark Henricksen and Fenton Ramey, the action was brought pursuant to the Declaratory Judgment Act and concerned a recent hot topic surrounding the Gary E. Miller Canadian County Children’s Justice Center – the sales tax passed by voters in 1996.
Stewart said during a Nov. 25 Canadian County Republican Party meeting held to discuss the tax, commissioners requested an Oklahoma Attorney General’s Opinion concerning its legal use “after we received questions from auditors about it,” including the funding of center operations, staffing and programs. The tax, as well as contract revenues, have been used to operate the center since it opened in 2002.
The opinion was requested by Sen. Ron Justice and received by commissioners Oct. 31. In the ruling, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and Assistant AG Richard Olderback stated the tax could be used only for maintenance and construction at the children’s justice center, not for day-to-day expenses, including payroll and programs.
According to Friday’s Petition, both Young and Wallace served as commissioners during the time the sales tax was presented to – and approved by – county voters.
“Donald L. Young pointed out that it was going to cost more to operate the facility than to build it, and it was discussed that the reason for the permanent tax was to provide such funding,” the petition stated. “Bond attorney and consultant Glenn Floyd made a presentation, including a lengthy and detailed analysis of long-term revenues from the proposed permanent tax increase, showing that operating funds would be available.”
Anderson, Stewart and Carson have spoken in public meetings about their inability to determine what commissioners – or the public – in 1996 envisioned for the tax’s use. In their petition, plaintiffs alleged there was no mystery about it, including “extensive public discussion and debate about the merits of the proposal and the need for provision and funding of juvenile facilities and services, with great discussion among the public as to the extent and need for such facilities and services as were proposed to be provided.”
Discussions and meetings with civic groups, video presentations and newspaper ads in Canadian County led to a public debate that “was intense and vigorous,” the petition stated. Plaintiffs alleged the public and officials alike had no doubt the permanent tax was meant to fund all of the center’s operations.
After the center was built and programs implemented, the tax was used solely for children’s center operations without issue; in December 2010, Anderson, Stewart and Carson began discussing what would become known as the “Anderson Plan,” a proposal to divert a portion of the sales tax to help fund county jail needs. Although Carson voted against the plan, it only needed the votes of Anderson and Stewart to allow it to go to voters. Residents rejected the Anderson plan in April 2011.
Following their receipt of the Oct. 31 AG’s opinion, Commissioners immediately stopped utilizing the bulk of the sales tax, opting to fund most of the center’s operations with $1.2 million in use tax; they also began a process of bringing the matter back before the voters.
“That’s why we need to get this ballot language written and get it right so we can get it to the voters as soon as possible, which is Feb. 10,” Stewart said during a Nov. 18 meeting to discuss the issue.
Carson proposed simply amending the language contained in the original resolution to include funding of operations, salaries and programs; on Dec. 4, he was overruled when Anderson and Stewart voted to authorize Assistant District Attorney Paul Hesse to draft a ballot that would require a change in the sales tax allocation in order for the center to continue operations. The resolution approved by Anderson and Stewart dictated 86 percent of both sales tax held in center accounts through the date of the vote and anything collected in the future would go to the children’s justice center, while 14 percent would be earmarked for “capital improvement needs of the county.”
Carson voted against the measure. Commissioners estimated sales tax held in abeyance now would total about $7.2 million by February.
Commissioners are set to vote on the formal ballot language at their Monday, Dec. 8 meeting. They must present a resolution to Canadian County Election Board by Dec. 10 in order to hold a Feb. 10 election on the issue.
Although Young, Wallace and the others did not specifically address the AG’s opinion in their petition, they referenced the change in how the center was funded in its wake, as well as the events in 2011.
“…Commissioners abruptly ceased the authorized stream of funding from the dedicated sales tax and announced they would henceforth fund the juvenile facilities and services at a reduced interim level until some future modification proposal might later be submitted to a vote of Canadian County citizens,” the petition stated.
In filing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs requested the court enter and injunction, which could force Anderson, Stewart and Carson to utilize the sales tax as it has been historically used. In requesting relief, Young, Wallace and the others stated, “Any attempts to restrict or divert such funding stream are improper and unlawful and should not be allowed to continue.”
Attempts to reach Stewart for comment were not successful as of late Friday.