BY MIKE W. RAY
The president of a conservative Oklahoma “think tank” recently wrote that the state Legislature could plug the state’s $215 million budget hole “in one afternoon of cost avoidance and use of available cash … ”
However, the right-wing executive apparently spent little time conducting research before trotting out his “solutions.”
For instance, he suggested scrapping the state’s 50% rebate on tobacco sales at Native American smoke shops. “End that and save $40 million,” he claimed. Presto! There’s just one hitch he didn’t mention: state/tribal compacts. The state cannot just unilaterally break a contract with an Indian tribe.
And then there was his proposal that would close nearly half of the state budget gap.
The County Improvements for Roads and Bridges [CIRB] fund is an account that contains money earmarked for county transportation projects, “and it has regular surpluses that aren’t needed,” the think tank exec contended. “Transfer $102.7 million to the state general fund and you’ve solved almost half of the cash needs with one simple action.”
Another poorly conceived notion.
For starters, the CIRB is not a typical state revolving fund, nor is it a slush fund. Instead, it is a genuine savings account in which county commissioners accumulate sufficient funds to underwrite a road or bridge project without incurring debt.
County commissioners across the state use the CIRB to finance their high-dollar transportation projects. A commissioner must have cash on hand before he/she can start such a project. A county “cannot go out to contract” on a transportation project “if the money is not there,” said former legislator Bill Case, legislative liaison for the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma [ACCO].
CIRB funds “have been allocated to various projects that are in preparation to become ‘shovel ready,’” said Raymond L. Vaughn Jr., an Oklahoma County commissioner and former state representative.
“I have a flood control bridge under way now that took me eight years to reach shovel-ready status from the time of conception,” said Vaughn, of Edmond. “I spent a million dollars on the engineering [design], environmental and right-of-way acquisition over that eight-year period before reaching shovel ready. My project is the largest CIRB project ever in the state of Oklahoma, and had the CIRB money not been there when the bid was let by ODOT [the Oklahoma Department of Transportation], then all that time and money would have been wasted.”
County commissioners across the state have “dozens of these projects in various stages of preparation,” Vaughn said. These projects are “under contract to some degree,” echoed Case.
“Much of that money is tied up in engineering,” McCurtain County Commissioner Jimmy Westbrook said. “It takes at least four years to get a project to letting,” he added.
McCurtain County commissioners, for example, have four CIRB projects; one is under way, two are shovel-ready, and a fourth is in the planning stage.
A $700,000 bridge spanning Cypress Creek is under construction in Westbrook’s District 3. District 1 Commissioner Jim Freeny wants to get his project for a bridge over Yanubbee Creek on the November letting.
And District 2 Commissioner Joe Coffman plans to improve a mile of blacktop Legates Road approximately three miles south of Idabel. The project will be financed with a $26,000 grant and approximately $50,000 of CIRB funds, Coffman said. The road is on school bus and mail delivery routes, the commissioner said. Driving on the road is “like riding a roller-coaster,” he said Tuesday. “We’ll smooth it out.”
In addition, Westbrook envisions replacement of the bridge that spans Little River on the old Broken Bow highway, near the Idabel water treatment plant; the antiquated, one-lane bridge has curved approaches at both ends. The replacement project would cost about $4 million, Westbrook indicated. “I’m trying to get it on the 2019 letting,” he said Monday.
The Legislature siphoned $50 million per year from the CIRB for three consecutive years, ledgers reflect.
Consequently, because of the $150 million in raids, the cash balance in the fund as of Aug. 31 was $204 million, but contracts for unpaid design, right-of-way and construction totaled $213 million, ACCO reports. Thus, net cash balance was negative $9 million.
“Currently this fund does not have the dollars to meet its contractual obligations,” Case lamented. Furthermore, “We have a billion dollars’ worth of work that needs to be done,” he added.
The Legislature’s initial raids on the CIRB resulted in delays to 44 county transportation projects, officials reported.
Oklahoma’s county transportation network is comprised of more than 83,000 miles of roads [70% gravel and 30% paved with asphalt], ACCO records reflect. To grade, drain and surface a mile of county road costs $1 million, on average, the association said.
The county transportation system also includes 13,565 bridges, of which 2,718 are deemed to be deficient [too old, too weak, too narrow, poorly located], records show.
In Fiscal Year 2017, contracts were awarded on 69 single-span and multi-span county bridges, at an average construction cost of $928,353, ACCO officials said. In FY 2016, contracts were awarded on 64 county bridges, at an average construction cost of $1,022,124. Expenses for project design and engineering, right-of-way acquisition and relocation of utility lines were not included in those costs, Case said.
Another significant expense in transportation projects is compliance with environmental requirements of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Quality, Case said.
“There’s not a penny of that [CIRB] money that we can spare,” Westbrook asserted.
– Mike W. Ray, a veteran Oklahoma journalist, lives in Oklahoma City. He recently retired after four years as media director for state House Democrats.