OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Tens of millions of dollars were approved by the Oklahoma County Commissioners for the construction of a new behavioral health facility Tuesday.
The money came from the American Rescue Plan Act, also known as ARPA.
All three commissioners voted in favor of spending $40 million on the facility.
During the meeting, commissioners said it appeared that the facility would benefit inmates and the public.
“I don’t think you should have to be incarcerated just to receive behavioral health care services,” said Carrie Blumert, District 1 Commissioner. “There was some discussion about potentially making that facility open to the public.”
Brian Maughan, District 2 Commissioner and Chairman, said the vote was historic for Oklahoma County.
“Our mental health needs have been so known in this community for a long time, and this is really the first time we’ve had the resources to be able to grapple with it,” said Maughan.
The $40 million will go into an account with the county, instead of going to the Oklahoma County Jail Trust.
Newly elected commissioner for District 3, Myles Davidson, also supported the plan. He was unavailable for a comment because of his swearing-in ceremony.
The mental health facility was the only agenda item that received the full support of the three-member commissioner. The chairman did say the $40 million will not cover the full cost of construction.
In 2022, Oklahoma County residents voted to approve $260 million in bonds to build a new detention center.
But on Tuesday, Commissioner Maughan said that project also needs more money to fund construction. He did not say if a location has been determined.
ARPA money was not allowed to be spent towards the detention center, so commissioners were creative and freed up money at the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office.
In a vote 2-1, the commissioners approved spending ARPA dollars to fund the sheriff’s office payroll for the period of July 2021 to June 2022. The spending could not exceed $11.1 million.
“The vote that paid for some of the law enforcement salaries that was actually already covered by general fund — now, those dollars can be potentially freed up,” said Maughan.
Commissioner Blumert was not satisfied with that justification.
“I didn’t feel it was appropriate to use ARPA money to pay for those expenses, to free up general fund money to do whatever we need to do with it,” said Blumert. “That [Sheriff’s Office payroll] is funded by our county general fund, which is your property taxes.”
The District 1 commissioner also didn’t approve of federal money for “Countywide Premium Pay,” which is essentially hazard pay for qualified county workers that showed up in-person during the pandemic.
Blumert said her biggest concern during Tuesday’s meeting was a lack of ARPA dollars going to community projects.
“I meet with nonprofits and community leaders all the time, and they are constantly asking for ARPA funding for affordable housing, workforce training, mental health care,” said Blumert. “Our small communities are asking for funding for their water infrastructure, their sewer infrastructure, so those things have been top of mind for me.”