Like many projects across the state, Oklahoma counties have been left to wait.
Counties have been waiting in the wake of the $868 million state budget shortfall to find out the fate of millions of dollars in funds that were earmarked for county projects. Last year, with the state facing an even larger revenue failure, the state kept those funds, pushing back county five-year plans. The five-year plans lay out counties’ projects for the upcoming years and how they plan to approach maintaining and improving county roads and infrastructure.
Since the state deficit was realized, those funds have effectively been frozen.
“It puts our jobs further back,” Jerry Alvord, District 3 Carter County Commissioner, said.
Alvord said several road and bridge projects have been pushed beyond their original time span for completion, pushing back progress and other future projects. Commissioners have been asked  about the delayed projects, with no real good answer.
“We are on the front lines,” he said. “We’re one of the still existing parts of government where people can come to us and talk with us face to face on issues.
“So it becomes really tough when we have to try to tell them why these projects on the five-year plan are going to seven or eight years.”
Early in the legislative session, it looked like the counties might have a solution to the funds being held back, though the solution wasn’t without its flaws. House Bill 1165, authored by Jason Murphy, R-Guthrie, proposed several changes to the way county improvements for roads and bridges are approached. The bill also called for a modification in the way those funds are allocated, a change prompted by the recent troubles with the funding from the state level.
Randy Robinson, executive director of the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma, said the bill came in the wake of involved discussions surrounding the allocation of funds.
The bill would modify the County Improvements for Roads and Bridges Fund by transferring the apportionment of the funds to the counties, rather than to the Transportation Commission districts. The bill would also grant the authority for the usage of those funds to the counties. The five-year limit counties are allowed to collect funds for specific projects would also be eliminated.
The problem, for many commissioners, was the funds would be distributed in equal amounts to the 77 counties in Oklahoma.
“That’s one of the scary parts,” Alvord said of the equal distribution, saying the distribution problem was likely an “oversight” when it was written. “Every county has it’s own unique personality.”
Alvord said the problem with an equal disbursement is no county is the same in terms of operation costs. Counties with more road mileage and traffic may cost more than counties that are less populated and more dispersed. The equal disbursement, Alvord said, could leave some counties with high populations and higher operating costs shorted.
One possible solution to the issue would be distributing the funds to the Circuit Engineering District, a board made up of several county commissioners. Oklahoma is currently split into eight districts and the CED districts allow the commissioners to determine where the funds are most needed and determine a plan for projects.
Kenny Wall, District 6 CED program manager, said commissioners have expressed concern over the wording of HB 1165. In seeking to approach the issue, the county commissioners were asked to pass resolutions stating their position on the bill, which would then go back to ACCO to represent the counties in discussions with legislators.
“It’s been actively discussed,” Wall said. “We’re not getting to complete our five-year plans. If the funds went to the counties it wouldn’t be taken back (by the state).”
“We like that the bill has come to light,” Alvord said of HB 1165, which the Carter County commissioners voted to disapprove of during a meeting. “But there’s some things about it that are issues.”
Last month, however, discussions surrounding fund allocation reform were shut down before they picked up steam. House Bill 1165 passed through the Transportation Committee with no problems, but was never heard on the floor. The bill has become dormant.
“Discussions have basically ceased,” Robinson said of HB 1165. Robinson said there is “currently nothing legislative” being discussed regarding the handling of funds. Robinson said with the halted discussions, reform of fund allocation will be delayed until at least next year, assuming discussions bring another bill to the floor.
In a reflection of the projects that have been pushed back for another time, the discussions of fund allocation have been put on hold for another year.