Ghosts of Christmas present confront city council
By Justin Scrimshire
Three days after holding their regularly scheduled city council meeting, the council reconvened for a special meeting concerning city employee stipends. With rumors abounding the stipends would not be approved, city employees, along with a large supportive crowd from the community gathered at city hall to hear what the council would say on the matter.
The stipends, a long-standing agreement between the city and its employees, stands in the place of annual raises. The decision to not honor that agreement would amount to a 10% cut in pay for city employees, a huge hit to the wallet as the holiday season arrives.
The council entered executive session to discuss the stipends and returned into open meeting session around 40 minutes later. Bound by executive session rules, Mayor Kelly West could not reveal to those in attendance what was discussed in executive session and called an adjournment of the meeting.
However, at the conclusion of the meeting, City Manager Kristy Leslie announced the council had approved the stipend. “The council has voted to pay the stipend, but we all know what kind of situation we are in for the next one in June,” said Leslie.
Concerning the next city employee stipend that is set to be paid next summer, Leslie stated, “we’ll meet later about that, but with having the $105,000 payment coming down on us in April, you know, kind of be tight and save your money because it’s a bad time all around.”
Leslie went on to say that she was doing everything in her power to look for solutions to the city budget crisis, including looking for grants and loan forgiveness. “If we get that, we’ll be good,” said Leslie.
In an interview with the Okemah News Leader, Leslie revealed how the burden of the $22.5 million loan for the new water plant and water towers, in addition to inflation and lagging sales tax revenue was starting to take a toll on the city budget.
“When the budget for the new fiscal year was set last year, a $22.5 million loan was not on the agenda,” said Leslie. Ready or not however, those monthly payments have arrived. Okemah made its first principal payment on the loan October 15, for $24,583.33.
That amount is set to escalate in the coming months, hitting $104,625.96 by April 15 of next year and will go as high as $106,093.45 on October 15, 2023. The loan set to be paid off on September 15, 2051. However expensive, Leslie stated the infrastructure update was unavoidable.
“We’re under a consent order with DEQ in our current plant with the agreement that a new water treatment plant is going to be built,” said Leslie. To help mitigate some of the cost, Leslie took a second look at the designs for the new plant and cut around $4 million dollars in excessive costs.
The original designs called for a 3,000 square foot lab area, three bathrooms and three showers, a four-bay garage, storm shelter, full kitchen and a break room. Adjustments to those plans now call for 1,100 square feet building that will house the necessary needs of the building, including one shower and one bathroom and a one-bay garage.
Creek Nation has also stepped in and offered $10 million towards the project but Leslie stated that while the help was critically important, the city wouldn’t have that cash in hand until projects began to be completed.
In a statement to the Okemah News Leader, Mayor West said, “For an undetermined number of years, the city employees have received a yearly longevity payment based on their years of service and a stipend based on a percentage of their yearly salary.
After receiving legal clarification regarding budgetary items, the Okemah City Council was advised to award city employees with these payments this year. The council will continue to focus on the serious infrastructure issues of the city and will work diligently to correct these issues.”