‘Enough is enough’
Officials voice frustration as opening of new county jail continues to be delayed
By Ken Childers
It’s been more than a year since the new Okfuskee County Jail was expected to be complete and open for business, and county officials say the construction company is to blame for the delays.
In a regular meeting of the Okfuskee County Justice Authority held Tuesday, Oct. 15, trustees Danny Wilson, Terry Wilson and James Yandell voted unanimously to disapprove over $250,000 in invoices from the architectural firm and the construction company hired to construct the facilities.
The trustees also refused to sign off on a “certificate of substantial completion,” a document acknowledging the work is complete in accordance with the contract documents and the jail can be occupied.
Invoices not approved for payment included $6,004.13 from Architects in Partnership and $249,409.14 from Atlas Construction. “We’ll approve it when the jail is fixed,” said Danny Wilson, who serves as chairman of the authority.
According to Sheriff Jim Rasmussen, problems continue to persist at the new jail, which will likely lead to a failed state inspection – and further delays in opening it. The exterior lights stay on continuously and the computer system that controls the lights and locks in the cells keeps crashing, despite recent “fixes.” Rasmussen also said there is an issue with one of the doors at the facility.
Even though unfixed issues remain, the trustees directed Rasmussen to call the state jail inspector and schedule an inspection.
“At this point, the public is starting to get as aggravated as anyone else,” said County Clerk Dianne Flanders. “There’s a rumor starting that we don’t have the money to run it [the jail], which is not true. We do have the money to run the jail. We can’t run it if it’s not open, and we can’t open if we don’t have an inspection. I think at this point – and I’m just the secretary to the board – we just need to call the jail inspector in, and have proof that it’s not just the board dragging their feet. We cannot open the jail.”
“I’m trying not to aggravate her (the jail inspector) by having her come down here to see a crashed security system and a rubber strip in a door that she said had to be fixed, but if that’s what ya’ll want to do, I’ll do it,” said Rasmussen.
“It’s just going to put it right back on them,” said trustee James Yandell, motioning toward Atlas CEO Mike Owen and Matt Graves of Architects in Partnership, who were seated near the trustees during the meeting.
“Every time she (the jail inspector) comes, she finds something different that’s wrong,” Flanders replied.
“And they (the contractors) will get tired of fixing stuff and they’ll get it done right,” Wilson interjected. “Enough is enough. We’ve paid out a lot of money. We want it right.”
Rasmussen then indicated he would make the call to get the inspection scheduled, but asked if he should wait until the light issue has been resolved.
“Let’s get it scheduled…maybe that will get someone moving a little faster. They’ll have to have it done before she gets here,” Wilson said.
The current jail, housed on the fifth floor of the Okfuskee County Courthouse (known in some circles as “high five”) has been in operation since 1927. The facility has been plagued with overcrowding issues, with some inmates reportedly sleeping on the floor. The jail has been damaged numerous times by inmates, including flooding caused by the intentional clogging of toilets. The carpet in the courtroom on the third floor has been replaced multiple times as a result of the flooding.
On Aug. 23, 2016 county voters took to the polls and approved a three-quarter cent sales tax increase to build the new jail. Nearly 78 percent of the 1,247 votes cast were in favor of the proposition.
On June 1, 2017, $5.6 million in bonds were issued to finance the construction of a new 88-bed facility on a five acre tract in the northeast corner of the Okemah Industrial Park. The land was donated by the City of Okemah.
The county selected Architects in Partnership and Atlas Construction to build the 16,144 square-foot facility, of which 2,306 square feet will be utilized by the sheriff’s department.
Per the bond proposal approved by voters, the new facilities will include two 24-bed male dormitory pods, one 12-bed male medium/maximum cell pod, one 20-bed female dormitory pod, one 8-bed trustee cell and a sally port/booking facility. (Note: a “sally port” is a secure, controlled entryway). Other features include a kitchen, laundry, multi-purpose room, jail administrator’s office, video visitation/professional visitation, jail reception/records area, lobby and public restrooms, and an exterior recreation yard/area.
Construction began in August 2017 and, at that time, was expected to be completed by September 2018.
According to the Okfuskee County Treasurer’s Office, the sales tax has generated $1,572,476.40 to date, most of which has gone toward debt retirement. The proposition, as approved by voters, called for the tax to remain in place for no more than 20 years. When the debt is retired, three-eights of one cent will remain in place, which will be used for operating and maintaining the jail.
A similar proposition to build a new jail was rejected at the ballot box in 2012. The failed issue was based on additional ad valorem (or property) taxes, rather than a sales tax increase.