Fisher suggests use of ARPA funds for courthouse annex

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

District Attorney Mike Fisher on July 12 told Osage County commissioners that he recommends they spend some of the county’s American Rescue Plan Act money on a new courthouse annex in Pawhuska.

“I’m going to stir the pot,” Fisher said, acknowledging the controversial nature of the proposal. Osage County political leaders have been attempting, from time to time for about a decade, to develop a plan for courthouse renovation or replacement that the voting public would support.

A ballot measure went down to defeat by a wide margin in 2011. A few years later, in late 2015, a select panel was created to study the county’s courthouse needs. That panel, of which Fisher was a member, met numerous times in 2016 and 2017.

Plenty of study and discussion were held, but nothing ever made it onto a ballot. Fisher recalled the study panel’s estimated price tag for a solution was in the neighborhood of $15 million to $16 million.

What he had in mind July 12 was considerably less expensive. Osage County is currently expected to receive slightly more than $9 million of ARPA funds, and a considerable portion of that is already intended for use on other priorities. Using ARPA funds for an annex would not require a ballot referendum.

“We are in desperate need of a courthouse,” Fisher said. The existing Osage County Courthouse dates back to 1914.

Fisher stressed that he believes it is incumbent on county officials to address the problem, and he ventured that this may be the best opportunity – using ARPA money to help with the cost – that current county officials will have to get something done.

Cost has been an issue when it comes to renovating or replacing the courthouse, or building an annex of some kind. There have already been political considerations, however. Pawhuska, with a population of 3,345 in 2020, is the county seat and views itself as an economically rising community. But Skiatook, located in the southeast portion of the county along the Osage County/Tulsa County line, had a 2020 population of 8,162, much of it in Osage County.

Skiatook is the more populous community, it is growing, and its population has been skeptical about supporting expensive plans to upgrade courthouse facilities in Pawhuska. No Osage County political leader has demonstrated the ability to build a consensus around a plan that both Skiatook and Pawhuska will support if a referendum vote becomes necessary.

Former District 2 Commissioner Kevin Paslay, who is from Skiatook, made an attempt to restart the courthouse discussion in 2018-19, but that effort failed to gain momentum.

County Assessor Ed Quinton Jr. suggested July 12 to Fisher that he might consider submitting a higher-dollar courthouse proposal, with the annex proposal as a fallback position.

In other business July 12, county commissioners did not decide to wait for any approval from the office of the State Auditor and Inspector before making one-time $2,500 payments to county employees. The commissioners had voted July 6 to approve such payments, but an item was added to their July 12 agenda about possibly waiting for an OK from the Auditor and Inspector’s office.

Fisher said Oklahoma law designates his office to provide legal advice to Osage County officials. The state Auditor and Inspector’s office can offer an opinion, but it does not have the same standing to supply legal advice.

Assistant District Attorney Ashley Kane, who is generally Fisher’s designated representative to the Board of County Commissioners, said July 12 that she didn’t see any legal problem with the payments, which were to come out of ARPA funds. Kane said she didn’t think the Auditor and Inspector’s office had any business being placed in a position of approving or disapproving.

The question of finalizing the one-time payments to employees was on the county board’s agenda again for July 19. The agenda also reflected a likely consideration of whether to include elected officials among those receiving payments. Elected officials had not initially been among the intended recipients.