JAY - The topic of conversation for almost all of the coffee drinkers at Spudnut Donut and Café on Thursday morning was the settlement of a multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit that could result in the county raising property taxes by 18 percent.
The coffee shop, which is directly across the street from the Delaware County Courthouse, was packed with lawyers, deputies and other courthouse personnel sipping freshly brewed coffee and occasionally eating a plate of bacon and eggs, while they glanced over the morning newspaper.
Everyone was talking about the settlement and most people were furious, said the coffee shop owner.
On Wednesday, Delaware County commissioners voted to settle a lawsuit for $13.5 million that was brought against Sheriff Jay Blackfox by 15 former female inmates who accused him of covering for jailers they said sexually molested them. Blackfox had denied any wrongdoing and was never accused of any sexual crimes.
"I think those responsible should be held accountable," said Chris Ramsey, an attorney, referring to Blackfox's employees.
Ramsey, who is a steady customer at the diner, said by telephone on Thursday that most of the county's residents find it difficult to pay their property taxes and this just adds to the burden.
The coffee shop owner declined to give her name but said that while running orders and cooking, she was able to pick up on most of her customers' conversations and they were centered on the county possibly sweeping problems under the rug.
"The innocent, law-abiding citizen should not have to foot the bill," the owner said.
On Thursday, Blackfox said he was undecided about his future with the sheriff's department.
"We will make no further comment on the matter of the lawsuit on the advice of the counsel handling the lawsuit until the settlement is completely finalized," said District Attorney Eddie Wyant.
The civil case was handled by the Oklahoma City law firm of Collins, Zorn and Wagner, which was hired by the county's insurance company.
When the allegations first surfaced, the former inmates would not cooperate with investigators and some even recanted their stories, Wyant said earlier.
Jail Administrator Lonnie Hunter and deputy Bill Sanders Sr., who is now deceased, were accused by the women of raping and groping inmates while driving them to doctors appointments, in the jail shower or in their cells. Blackfox was accused of ignoring the female inmates' complaints.
"I don't believe Delaware residents' property taxes should be raised to pay for the settlement," said Bud Bohall, who owns 160 acres near West Maysville near the Arkansas border.
"They (county commissioners) need to clean house," Cindy, a Jay property owner who declined to give her last name, said, referring to the sheriff's department.
"Why should the taxpayers have to foot the bill for something they did?"
In Kenwood, most residents who stopped in at the Kenwood Grocery said they felt like taxpayers are getting a raw deal, said Kay Chancellor, grocery store manager.
Should the settlement fall to the taxpayers, the rise in property taxes would last for three years, said Delaware County Assessor Leon Hurt.
The settlement is three times the county's annual budget of $4.5 million.
If property taxes are raised, the earliest the increase would go into effect is January 2013, county officials said.
Hunter has been on paid administrative leave since April 19 and does not have a listed telephone number. No criminal charges have been filed against Hunter. Wyant said earlier he is waiting for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to complete a criminal investigation.
Sanders was dismissed from the sheriff's department and died in November 2008. Sandra Sanders, his widow, does not have a listed telephone number.
2006-2010: Alleged rapes and sexual assaults of women in Delaware County Jail.
2006: Complaint sent to Sheriff Jay Blackfox by inmates.
2008: Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation launches initial investigation.
2008: Tulsa attorney David Garrett's wife pleads guilty to drunken driving charge in Delaware County; a few weeks later former female inmates of the jail begin receiving letters from his law office asking them to call him if they witnessed or were subject to "improper activities by law enforcement personnel."
2009: Federal lawsuit filed by Garrett's firm on behalf of former inmates accusing the sheriff of covering up crimes by jailers. A member of the firm says the suit was not retaliatory.
2009: District Attorney Eddie Wyant elects not to file any criminal charges against Blackfox. He also says that one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit recanted her allegations in a written statement and that there were no witnesses nor physical evidence in another plaintiff's case.
Wednesday: County commission votes to settle lawsuit for $13.5 million.
Original Print Headline: Property tax hike a worry for residents
Delaware County is home to many upscale residences and other properties on and near Grand Lake.
One property owner, who has a $3.2 million weekend lake home, could see a property tax increase of about $5,500 per year, said Delaware County Assessor Leon Hurt.
Hurt said there are 518 residences, commercial property and lakefront properties in county that are valued at more than $500,000 each. Those properties have a total value of $411 million, he said.
"We are a poor county in income," Hurt said. "But in (property) value we are the 15th or 16th (county) from the top."
A breakdown of potential annual tax increases if property taxes are raised 18 percent:
$1 million home: $1,708
$500,000 home: $855
$100,000 home: $171
$75,000 home: $128
$30,000 home: $51