Oklahoma auditor criticizes Creek County land purchase

Nolan ClayThe Oklahoman(TNS)

SAPULPA — The state auditor on Monday criticized Creek County commissioners, saying they violated the state constitution when they acquired 226 acres in 2013.

“Ultimately, the problem we have is that they bought the property and put it on the tax rolls without letting the citizens have any say so in it,” State Auditor Gary Jones said after releasing an audit of Creek County.

Commissioners used the eminent domain process to take the property outside the city limits of Sapulpa for economic development. A judge in 2013 approved the $1,125,000 acquisition.

Property owners are paying more in ad valorem taxes over three years to cover the cost.

“The County did not follow provisions of the Oklahoma Constitution and state statutes regarding the acquisition of property,” the audit found. “The County should refrain from condemning and taking property for the purpose of economic development as prohibited by the Oklahoma Constitution.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2006 specifically addressed the issue in a case involving Muskogee County, according to the audit.

Justices ruled in that case, “We hold that economic development alone does not constitute a public purpose and therefore, does not constitutionally justify the county’s exercise of eminent domain.”

Jones said Creek County commissioners should have paid for the land outright with existing funds or put it to a vote of the people.

County officials disagreed with the auditor’s finding. In responses attached to the audit, they said the constitutional prohibition did not apply to this case because the landowner wanted to sell.

The audit also found the county had to pay $73,302 in interest unnecessarily on the purchase because paperwork wasn’t filed in a timely manner with the county clerk.

County Commissioner Newt Stephens Jr. said any delay was “merely an oversight” and will not happen again in the future.