Talks planned for Courthouse

Allison Weintraub |

Renovations to the Osage County Courthouse must wait, as more polling is required to determine the popularity of the project.

Currently, the more popular of the two proposed projects involves renovating the Osage County Courthouse, building a new annex to the north to house certain government offices and creating a southern annex in Skiatook. According to the Osage County Courthouse Committee’s report to the commissioner, the cost of these projects is approximately $17.8 million, which would be around $6.45 million less than the 2011 proposal, which failed after going to a vote.

Darren McKinney, one of three county commissioners, said he wanted to get more information before beginning to entertain the idea of moving forward with the voting procedure.

“We plan on having another poll to get some more discussion. It’s not going to be rushed in to a vote,” McKinney said.

Mike Tolson, chair of the committee, said that although turnout for informative community meetings was low, straw polls held after those meetings showed 96 percent of voters preferred the plan which included the northern annex. He said residents of the county might not see a personal benefit to capital improvement projects, but those projects are important.

“So often times, citizens may not be able to see a direct benefit that they derive from government facilities and improvements. But, when you consider that at whatever level — federal, state, county, municipal government — it’s what we have to have to take care of people’s business, then you have no choice as a community at every level of having appropriate facilities,” Tolson said.

The committee recommended the plan to the county commissioners at the end of May and discussed half-cent sales tax increase for 20 year bonds, which the committee anticipates will be able to be paid off before the 20 years, according to its report.

Judge John Kane served as the co-chair of the committee, but also faces the courthouse’s obstacles on a daily basis due to his profession. He said the floor plan of the courthouse creates safety issues along with poor functionality.

“The courthouse as currently configured requires that people in chains be brought through the very same hallways that are used by the folks that are in the courthouse to transact other business,” Kane said. “It causes people to be paraded right past, perhaps, the grieving family of the victim of a crime.”

However, McKinney said it was difficult to know whether or not the citizens supported the projects without more knowledge of opinions throughout the county.

“It’s not an easy decision from a commissioner’s standpoint — trying to speak for the entire population when we know it’s split,” McKinney said.

McKinney said he wanted to do the vote right, which would mean not putting county money into calling an election without being sure the measure would pass.

“We didn’t get the turnout we wanted for the committee,” McKinney said. “When we have thousands of registered voters in Osage county and we only got a small percentage of that to show up, I can’t really base the numbers that the committee got as a go ahead to put it to a vote.”

Kane said while he thought everyone could acknowledge that “this grand old lady” needed renovations, the funding for the project was never going to be popular, but looking at other communities shows that it is possible.

“I look and I see a new jail in Bartlesville and a new courthouse in Claremore and a new courthouse in Pryor and a renovated courthouse in McAlester, so it’s not unheard of,” Kane said. “It can be done.”

Tolson said the issue of renovating the courthouse had another important factor: time.

“These issues are not going to get any better,” Tolson said. “Time is not going to be our friend relative to these, from security issues to even trying to preserve the historical elements.”