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Mayor says city has no intention of getting rid of golf courses

Golfers concerned that the city of Tulsa had appraisals of the Page Belcher golf courses done with the intent of selling the land for another use can rest easy.

Mayor G.T. Bynum says that’s not happening.

“The goal that I think everyone in this process shares is that we want to improve the golf experience at city-owned golf courses,” Bynum said. “And there has been no discussion that I am aware of of doing anything that would discontinue the utilization of those properties as golf courses.”

He added that the city “hasn’t had any serious discussions with anyone about selling golf courses.”

The Tulsa World last week reported that the city had appraisals done on the Olde Page and Stone Creek golf courses. The courses, known collectively as Page Belcher, are two of the four public golf courses owned by the city. The others are at Mohawk Park.

Park and Recreation Director Anna America told the World that the appraisals were part of a larger fact-finding effort to assess the status of the golf courses and options for how they could be operated in the future.

“My hope would be that somebody would come to us and say, ‘Why, we would love to run a public golf course here, and we’re going to take great care of it, and everyone is going to love it,’ ” America said. “And they would pay the appraised value, and we could take that money and put it somewhere else.”

She said there were no plans to develop the land for commercial purposes but acknowledged that one idea presented to the city called for commercial development on the Page Belcher property south of 71st Street.

Bynum said he is not proposing any potential outcome from the ongoing golf course discussions but that any that come forward should be founded on a clear understanding of the existing situation and the potential options for the future.

“If you are going to go through a process where you are trying to look at all the options and you want to involve lots of stakeholders, then you need to know what your facts are before you do that,” the mayor said. “And that’s what this was really in the early stages of that process trying to do.”

The city’s decision not to provide a specific funding allocation for its golf courses in the proposed $639 million Improve Our Tulsa renewal has prompted renewed discussion of what the city plans to do with the properties.

At a public meeting last month, America joined City Councilors Jeannie Cue and Vanessa Hall-Harper in encouraging golfers to create a golf committee to advocate for and raise funds on behalf of the golf courses.

America said Monday that she is also working with the Mayor’s Office to create an internal advisory board to participate in the discussions to ensure the courses’ long-term viability.

The advisory board members include Ken MacLeod, publisher, Golf Oklahoma magazine; Nick Sidorakis, general manager, Southern Hills Country Club; Randy Heckenkemper, golf course designer and consultant; Pat Connelly, former city budget official and avid golfer; and a community representative.

“By tapping into some people who really understand and value golf, and specifically municipal golf courses and the challenges they face, we can make sure we are using the limited resources in the smartest way possible and are making the best decisions around managing the city’s courses,” America said.

Bynum said he doesn’t know what the best path forward is.

“That is why I think the group that has been established is so important and why we are trying to give that group the information they need to make informed decisions,” he said.

The city’s golf courses have been operated and managed by Billy Casper Golf since 2008. In fiscal year 2017, the golf courses lost approximately $170,000 on revenues of $2.8 million. In 2018, the golf courses lost approximately $252,000 on revenues of nearly $2.6 million.

In the city’s current fiscal year budget — which is separate from the proposed Improve Our Tulsa renewal package — the city is providing the golf courses $167,000 in operational and short-term capital funding.

The city recently increased this fiscal year’s funding for the golf courses, America said, adding $252,000 for four mowers.

Bynum said everyone agrees that the city’s golf courses “are not what we would want them to be.”

What’s less clear is how to fix that problem. That’s why, Bynum said, it’s imperative to have all the necessary information, including land appraisals, to make a decision.

“I would be willing to bet that we (at the city) don’t have a single week that goes by where we don’t do an appraisal of a piece of property,” he said. “We do appraisals so we understand what the value of things that the city has may be, and that helps us make decisions.”

Bynum said it’s his understanding that all parties involved in the golf course discussions want the city to come up with a plan to improve the courses and that all options should be examined.

“And if we don’t want to do that, if we want to just not have all the facts and just say, ‘Well, we should put more money into them, and that is the only option,’ well, we can do that,” he said. “If that’s what the councilors would be more comfortable with, we can do that. I don’t think that is very creative or giving all the potential options that could be out there.”

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City inspecting Arkansas River street bridges this week in wake of floods

The city is inspecting Tulsa street bridges over the Arkansas River as part of a regular two-year inspection schedule.

The bridge inspections, which began last week, will be in progress through Thursday, the city said.

The inspections follow historic flooding of the Arkansas River in May and June, with the Keystone Dam upstream releasing 277,000 cubic feet of water per second during the flood’s peak.

The river’s flood stage in Tulsa is 18 feet, and it crested at 23.41 feet at 3 p.m. May 29.

Inspectors are looking for the same things they always look for, said Maranda Davis, transportation rehabilitation manager for the city.

But because of the flood, with its record-high waters, they are also looking at “scour,” or erosion around the bridge column foundations.

“Right now they aren’t seeing any real issues with scour,” she said. “If there was something to determine that something was needed further, they would let us know.”

The biennial inspections are of the undersides of bridges on city streets. The city has contracted with the Garver engineering firm to inspect the undersides of the bridges using a “snooper truck.”

The truck has a long arm with a crow’s nest attached that can be lowered underneath the bridges so inspectors can have a close-up look. Lane closures on the bridges are necessary while the truck is stopped on them.

Inspections under the bridges are conducted in odd-numbered years, and the surfaces of the bridges are inspected in even-numbered years.

The 21st/23rd Street bridge was built about 1984, and the 71st Street bridge was built in 1983, Davis said.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation inspects the Interstate 44, Interstate 244, U.S. 97 (in Sand Springs) and U.S. 64 (Memorial Drive in Bixby) bridges over the Arkansas River at least once every two years, ODOT spokeswoman Kenna Mitchell said.

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority inspects the Creek Turnpike bridges.

State officials said in late May that the state and turnpike bridges were all in good shape, despite the historic levels of the river.

Mitchell said the U.S. 97, I-244 and I-44 bridges were inspected as part of a regular schedule in August and that no immediate problems were found.

“I’m still waiting for the reports to come back, but it seems like everything is going to be OK,” she said.

The U.S. 64 bridge was inspected in June, and no major flooding damage was found, she said.

The city will be inspecting its bridges from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., depending on the weather. The schedule with lane closures is:

Tuesday: 21st/23rd Street bridge, with the westbound outside lane closed.

Wednesday: 71st Street bridge, with the eastbound outside lane closed.

Thursday: 71st Street bridge, with the westbound outside lane closed.

Inspection of the Southwest Boulevard bridge, built in about 1980, was completed last week.

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Oklahoma Watch: Stitt's pick for Land Office lacks required degree, involved in lawsuits

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s pick to head the Commissioners of the Land Office lacks the advanced degree needed to become permanent secretary and has owned a company involved in legal disputes over oil and gas leases.

The Legislature would have to change the job’s qualifications to allow Acting Secretary Brandt Vawter to become secretary.

Vawter was appointed in June to lead the Land Office, which manages a $2.4 billion portfolio of oil and gas assets, agricultural land and commercial property to benefit Oklahoma education. Vawter formerly worked as a landman at Chesapeake Energy Corp. and XTO Energy Inc. before forming his own oil and gas development company, Monticello Investments LLC.

Vawter replaced Harry Birdwell, who retired as Land Office secretary in June after eight years with the agency. Stitt nominated Vawter to the job in June, and the commission voted 4-0 to hire him as acting secretary for $130,000 a year. He started July 1.

The secretary of the Land Office should have an advanced degree, according to state law, but Vawter has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Texas Christian University. Questions have also arisen about some recent lawsuits against Monticello Investments, alleging the company failed to pay bonuses for oil and gas leases and inaccurately recorded leases at county offices.

Vawter declined to give an interview and said through a Land Office spokeswoman that he had no comment on the lawsuits because they were settled.

A spokeswoman for Stitt said the governor wanted a Land Office secretary who had extensive experience in managing and developing minerals “to ensure the agency delivers the strongest return for Oklahoma’s public schools.”

“The governor’s legal team did extensive outreach and research on Mr. Vawter’s business record and company, and they found no evidence of wrongdoing in past cases and also ensured there were no current conflicts of interest and no CLO leases in the portfolio of Monticello Investments LLC,” Stitt spokeswoman Donelle Harder said in a statement.

Vawter “stepped away” from Monticello when he took the job as acting secretary, according to a news release announcing his appointment. The Governor’s Office did not give details on how Vawter separated himself from his business. Previous secretaries of the Land Office, including Birdwell and now-Attorney General Mike Hunter, put their assets in trusts or blind trusts while in office.

Vawter’s wife, Amber Vawter, is also a managing member of Monticello. The Ethics Commission stopped requiring agency heads to file financial disclosure forms in 2016.

The land commissioners have held just one regular meeting, in August, since Vawter took over July 1. Aside from Stitt, the commission has four other members: Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell; Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister; State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd; and Secretary of Agriculture Blayne Arthur.

Revising qualifications

Harder said if the agency continues to run smoothly, Stitt plans to work with lawmakers to change the law to allow a person’s professional tenure to be equal to an advanced degree in qualifying for Land Office secretary.

The Land Office was rocked by a scandal a decade ago when Roger Q. Melson Jr., a former director of audits for the Royalty Division, was accused of embezzling about $1.2 million in royalty checks and lease payments meant for the agency. Melson, who said he had a gambling problem, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was released in 2014.

In response, the Legislature in 2010 tightened up the agency’s internal processes and added requirements for the secretary position.

With Vawter, House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said she was concerned Stitt was ignoring or didn’t know the law when it came to the qualifications for secretary. She said the 2010 updates were bipartisan, gaining approval by a Republican-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat. She cited the Land Office’s role in funding public schools.

“It seems clear that they made the judgment that when you are going to be in charge of this huge amount of assets and that it’s going to be something as important as funding public schools in Oklahoma, that you need to have not just experience in the field but also an advanced degree,” Virgin said.

Lawmakers have changed qualifications for heads of other agencies. In 2016, the law was changed to allow Joe Allbaugh to take over the Department of Corrections without the required five years of corrections experience. Lawmakers also removed the requirement for a master’s degree for Steve Buck to become director of the Office of Juvenile Affairs.

Details of lawsuits

Two companies sued Vawter’s Monticello Investments over lease bonuses and document filing in recent years. In the lawsuits, the parties accused each other of withholding information or failing to meet terms of deals but ultimately settled.

Osage Land Co. sued Monticello in 2016 over the sale to Osage of $1.2 million in oil and gas leases in Canadian and Grady counties. Monticello told Osage it had secured all of the leases, but Osage discovered Monticello only owned about 25% of the leases. Osage tried to cancel the deal, but Monticello did not return more than $119,000 held in escrow, according to the Osage petition.

“Monticello represented to Osage it had actually paid for the leases to be sold to Osage, and in fact even gave to Osage executed checks made out to lessors which Osage later discovered were never delivered to the lessors,” Osage said in a March 2017 filing.

In reply, Monticello said Osage waited too long to begin its title examination of the leases and asked for an extension in exchange for a nonrefundable deposit equal to the escrow amount. Monticello said the deal fell apart after Osage tried to lower the per-acre price of the leases.

“Monticello had a contract with Osage. Osage unilaterally concluded that Monticello was making too much, and then tried to chisel Monticello out of $300/acre,” the company said in its response.

The case was settled in October 2017.

In another case, Monticello was sued in 2017 by Equitable Royalty Corp. for not paying lease bonuses, the payments for executing on a valid lease, for minerals leased in Custer and Grady counties and recording uncertified copies of leases with the county clerk. Equitable said Monticello’s business model amounted to a “lease and release scheme.”

“The lease and release scheme enables the defendants to speculate on oil and gas leases without making any capital outlay to mineral owners like plaintiff,” Equitable said in an August 2017 court filing.

Monticello responded that Equitable didn’t disclose that some of the leases were only for oil and gas at certain depths and therefore those leases had no value. Both companies dismissed their claims when the case was settled in November 2017.

Attorneys for Osage and Equitable did not return calls seeking comment.

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Bobcats secretly prowling residential Tulsa streets; another predator to note

Bobcats are prowling around Tulsa in the evenings, according to some recent reports and the knowledge of experts.

A resident in the Forest Creek Neighborhood near 81st Street and Harvard Avenue sent a video captured by a security camera of a bobcat walking across a front porch about 1:30 a.m.

Bobcat sightings also were reported around the Indian Springs area of Broken Arrow, an area of large open spaces that is near the Arkansas River off 131st Street.

In recent days, social media posts warned of bobcats seen in the area. One woman reported to local television news stations that her two small dogs were killed after she let them out at night. Her beagle was killed by a bobcat, and one other small dog was severely bitten and had to be euthanized.

Coyotes and bobcats are predators common in the Tulsa area, and wildlife experts advise that people need to be aware they could be present at any time.

“Bobcats are always around,” said Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation spokesman Micah Holmes. “They are very common in Oklahoma, more common than many realize because they are so secretive.”

Bobcats are crepuscular animals, which means they are most active just after sunset and right around sunrise. They may be out at night or during the day as well, just not as often.

Residential areas are not outside the habitat of bobcats, which have adapted to inhabit forested areas as well as mountains and prairies across the country. They live in areas across the contiguous United States and into Canada.

“Anyplace where there is some cover and some food,” Holmes said. “In the city, they find mice and squirrels and rabbits and rats, sometimes a house cat.”

In the fall, bobcat kittens born in the spring are getting older and might not be sticking as close to their mother, Holmes said.

“If you see a young one, it might be a juvenile, and it’s just not as experienced at staying away from people,” he said.

Generally, there is no reason to be concerned if you see a bobcat in a residential area, he said. The same precautions should be taken with the knowledge that bobcats are present as with any other wildlife, such as coyotes.

Pet food should be brought inside at night and attractants like open garbage should be minimized. Anything that attracts mice, rats or squirrels — like excess birdseed — might attract the animals that prey on them. Generally, however, the big cats help keep down the population of rodents and typically stay out of sight.

“If you see one that ends up in a garage or somewhere it’s not supposed to be or it’s sick or injured, then obviously you don’t want to handle it,” Holmes said.

Bobcats, even young ones, may look cute like a house cat, but they are wild, have sharp claws and teeth, and are dangerous.

“Don’t try to handle it; call a game warden,” Holmes said.

Most often, however, bobcats are secretive and not seen.

“They’re one of the things that make it neat to live in Oklahoma,” he said. “If you’re lucky enough to see one, consider yourself fortunate.”