When Oklahomans think of county government, they probably think of these two things: the county commissioner scandal of early 1980s or road improvement.
For many years, the commissioner scandal – sometimes called Okscam – affected how much Oklahoma residents trusted their local government, especially because the scandal was and is the biggest corruption scandal in American politics according to the FBI.
Each of Oklahoma’s 77 counties has three commissioners and commissioners from 60 counties were charged with federal crimes. Of the 231 total commissioners, 110 were convicted of federal crimes including accepting kickbacks for equipment purchased at 100 percent over cost.
An additional 220 contractors were also convicted for participating in the scheme. Investigation of the scandal ended in 1984 but it still lives in the minds of older voters. As a result of the scandal, power was centralized more to the state level of government and away from the county, and commissioners were required to follow state requirements when making purchases. Basically, as commissioners’ duties have expanded, their powers have retracted.
According to information provided by Commissioner Justin Roberts, there are 898 miles of road in Pontotoc County. Maintaining all the roads and bridges in the county is tremendously difficult and costly.
Money for roads comes from gas and diesel taxes, motor vehicle collections, and a small portion of the gross production taxes collected by the state. Gross production taxes are distributed among counties based on the previous year’s production so some counties don’t share in this money.
When you purchase regular gas for your car, consider the 16 cents per gallon tax collected by the state. County governments receive 4.9 percent of this money. The gas tax is a good example of a tax where state revenues are tied to use. When people drive more, they buy more gas. The additional tax can go right back into county roads to make up for the increased wear and tear. In FY 2010 the State of Oklahoma collected almost $300 million in gasoline taxes and shared $92 million with counties.
In FY 2010 the state brought in over $161 million dollars in motor vehicle collections such as car registration fees. This money is divided among the 77 counties and netted Pontotoc County just over $2 million dollars. If we have 898 miles of road, that only allows $2,337 to be spent per mile per year from car registrations. Considering it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a highway, it is clear why it is a struggle to keep roads in good repair.
While Oklahoma voters may believe county commissioners only work on roads and bridges, they actually have a variety of other duties. According to Commissioner Roberts, the Board of Commissioners is the principal administrator and business manager of the county.
The members inspect and approve county programs and facilities, supervise the financial affairs of the county, develop personnel policies, investigate the performance of other county officers, and make agreements affecting the welfare of residents within the county.
County programs include fire protection, rural transit, nutritional sites, the county fair, Pontotoc County Agri-Plex, and assisting small towns with their street maintenance.
All of these examples show the vast range of responsibilities undertaken by county commissioners but with powers that were decreased by the post-scandal reforms.
Oklahoma voters may be most familiar with county commissioners and perhaps the sheriff, but there are actually a total of eight elected officials in each county in Oklahoma.
This includes the sheriff, three commissioners who are elected by district, treasurer, assessor, court clerk, and county clerk. That we elect so many officials at the county level (and state level) reflects the fact that Oklahoma government was heavily influenced by the Progressive Movement that was in full swing when Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
The idea was to give citizens more power by electing many different government offices instead of having them appointed.
Recently, Eric Swanson with The Ada News has reported on how the hotel tax revenue has been spent by the county. All proceeds had been spent on the Agri-Plex and advertising the activities held there. Although voters might look at this spending and view it a bit narrow, spending this tax revenue only on the Agri-Plex is exactly what voters approved in 2006.
The original proposition states that 5 percent hotel tax should go: “100 percent to the Pontotoc County Agri-Plex for maintenance, operation, promote, encourage, and develop tourism and recreational activities beneficial to Pontotoc County.”
Christine Pappas, J.D., Ph. D., is professor of political science coordinator, Department of Political Science, East Central University.