Stillwater News Press

June 1, 2012

Payne County adopts new plan on road sales tax dispute

By Ricky O'Bannon

STILLWATER, Okla. — Payne County officials voted Friday to split the 3/8-cent sales tax evenly between the two county road districts, at least until a study is finished.

County commissioners voted May 7 to change what had been a 50/50 split of the sales tax to a 65/35 split in favor of District 3, which is represented by Commissioner Jim Arthur. Commissioners Arthur and Gloria Hesser outvoted newly elected District 1 Commissioner Zach Cavett, whose district lost part of its funding.

The new plan would take 70 percent of the sales tax money and split it 50/50 between the two districts, giving each 35 percent of the total sales tax road funds. The remaining 30 percent would be held in reserve until a study to assess the needs of each district could be completed. The county’s general fund will pay for the study instead of money coming out of either road district’s budget.

The plan received a 7-0 vote Friday by the County Budget Board, which includes all elected county officials including the county commissioners.

“Once that study is done, then we sit down as a group and discuss where the needs are and how we should allocate the funds,” said County Clerk Linda Hatfield.

Hatfield offered the plan and also called for Friday’s special meeting. She said each road district has raised good points about its needs for funding and a study would be able to account for oil traffic in District 1 or District 3 caring for some roads and bridges in District 2.

“The name-calling, the finger-pointing, the accusations are getting us nowhere,” Hatfield said. “We need to come up with a plan that will come up with a workable solution for all involved.”

During an emotional and at times tumultuous County Commission meeting on May 21, several District 1 residents suggested that cutting their district’s road funding would likely mean voters will reject the next vote to extend the 3/8-cent sales tax. Fifty-three percent of that tax supplies the road funds in question while the remaining percentage goes to fund rural fire coverage among other things.

“I think the sales tax issue is a vital source of revenue for the county as a whole,” Hatfield said. “We will all suffer if it ever goes away.”

She also suggested that no one commissioner should decide what company does the study and the process should go to the best bidder. County Treasurer Bonita Stadler suggested the county should first see whether Oklahoma State University could do the study. The university has done studies for the county in the past, she said, and would also be an impartial party.

Stadler said she felt the sales tax division should remain flexible to address the changing needs of each district, particularly in the case of natural disasters that might damage property in one part of the county. She also said a study would provide concrete reasons for the way the money is divided.

“It’s never really been addressed until now, and I think it’s time to address it but address it in a formalized and documented manner that doesn’t make anyone leave with the feeling (they were) cheated,” Stadler said.

One chief complaint from residents at the May 21 commission meeting was that the method used to arrive at the 65/35 split was never well explained. Stadler said documentation would help move the county forward with however it chooses to divide the funds.

“We need to get off high center here because we’ve always been a county that’s worked together well, and we want to continue that way,” she said.

County Assessor James Cowan said the road study needs to include dirt and gravel roads. A previous proposal for a road study discussed at a May commission meeting would have only done an inventory and traffic count of paved roads. That study was expected to cost approximately $100,000.

Arthur agreed that some dirt and gravel roads need to be studied and said he has some in his district that have a traffic count of more than 1,000 vehicles a day.

“If traffic is showing that something needs to be done, then it needs to be done,” he said.

Cavett expressed concerns about the study.

“I just don’t like to see a major amount of money coming out of Payne County’s budget to do a study that is not going to benefit Payne County as a whole,” he said.

Cavett also said that a study of existing roads and population might not account for the development and growth that could be done in rural areas if some roads were improved.

Stadler said that OSU has done some free studies for the county previously, and they could potentially save the county some of that cost.

Despite some concerns, Cavett said he would support the plan to split the money 50/50 while holding some in reserve until the study was finished, and he voted to approve it with the rest of the board.