Oklahoma Officials Fight Mandates

Article excerpt

Truly effective communication relies on a short, concise message. And that's just what Shawnee Mayor Pierre F. Taron delivered to state lawmakers earlier this month when he questioned the legislature's practice of creating state departments and agencies minus any appropriations for their operational costs.

Such departments and agencies are left to fund their existence through permit fees and fines for violations and, according to Mayor Taron, the practice equals nothing short of yet another unfunded mandate for cities and towns.

"I just have a problem with understanding how and why you voted to create the DEQ (Oklahoma State Department of Environmental Quality),tion," he added.

The central Oklahoma city of 26,000 is one of many municipalities across the state in line to see permit fees for its wastewater treatment plants skyrocket. According to the latest schedule of proposed permit fee increases, Shawneecosts would balloon from $800 currently paid to $11,000 if Oklahoma is successful in assuming the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program from EPA, Mayor Taron explained. He said similar increases are anticipated in the area of air quality and sanitary waste disposal as councils established under the DEQ develop revised permit fee and fine structures.

"I can only see one way to look at this and that is to categorize it as another unfunded mandate put on cities and towns by the State Legislature," Mayor Taron's letter continues.

In 1992 the Oklahoma State Legislature voted to establish the DEQ, granting regulatory and enforcement authority to the agency primarily in the areas of solid waste and water quality management. Since July 1993, cities and towns have been hit hard with escalating costs associated permits and violations.

Mayor Taron said he wrote legislators due to the continued promise of unfunded mandates relief. "Enough is enough," said Mayor Taron. "We keep hearing help is on the way - that lawmakers realize the financial straits in which cities and towns are finding themselves," he said. "But meantime, back at the ranch, we're still trying to figure out how to pay for unfunded mandates already on the books as still more head our way," added Mayor Taron, who is a member of the Oklahoma Municipal League Board of Directors.

As with any issue, with unfunded mandates the difficulty has been in educating lawmakers and policy makers as wen as the general public regarding the state and federal government's practice of passing on onerous rules, regulations and laws without the dollars for their implementation. While municipal officials have successfully educated key decision makers to the pit-falls associated with unfunded mandates, city and town officials have often fallen short in the area of being able to provide hard numbers to illustrate the exact budgetary impact when it comes to unfunded mandates.

But that's not the case in Broken Arrow, Okla. where city officials have moved past the assumptions to providing hard fast numbers. For four years now Brenda Rinehart, director for administration, has coordinated the documentation of the fiscal effects of state and federal mandates on the northeastern suburban community of 58,000.

This year's report illustrates the continued budgetary battle between mandates and local priorities. Of the 20 percent of the city's annual budget left after meeting personnel costs, more than 2 percent of operational funds are spent annually on meeting federal mandates. All total, in 1995, more than $900,000 will be spent meeting the mounting mandates. Not included in that figure is the daunting prospect of providing the capital funds needed to build physical improvements such as chlorination/ dechlorination facilities at the city's two wastewater treatment plants and provide modifications to the city's infrastructure to accommodate the Americans with Disabilities Act. These projects alone stand to cost the city close to $10. …