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Stitt raises possibility of broadening education funding options in State of the State address

Gov. Kevin Stitt said his administration is looking into letting communities vote for higher property taxes to better fund schools without having the increase offset by the state’s funding formula.

Speaking Tuesday during his first Tulsa Regional Chamber State of the State forum, Stitt initially described the research as an attempt to “tweak, … or to blow up and redo,” the funding options to improve education.

Although Stitt later said “blow up” probably wasn’t the best way to describe the potential changes, he said he wants his team to take the opportunity to go big.

One of those options is allowing communities to raise property taxes to provide more money for a school district without the money counting against the state’s equalization formula for school funding.

“I think we need to look at how we fund and how we unlock the potential in local communities that want to pay their teachers more, that want to do more and want to invest in their school system,” Stitt said. “Right now, they can’t do that, so I want to think through that.

“We’re not in an isolated box; we have 49 other states that show us how they fund their education system. We’ve got to think outside the box for what’s going to be happening 10 years from now.”

Stitt mentioned the funding formula while answering a question from Don Millican, chief financial officer of Kaiser Francis Oil Co. Millican conducted a question-and-answer session with the governor after Stitt’s speech to the group.

With more consumers switching to online shopping instead of local businesses, as well as other factors, Stitt said sole reliance on sales tax revenue is “a bad playbook.” Stitt said he would rather see counties and cities determine how to fund themselves through a mix of sales and property taxes.

Millican then asked how such an approach would play out in common education. The present funding formula determines state aid based on property taxes, and in the event a city or county voted to raise those taxes to better fund its schools, state aid would decrease.

Stitt said his team is researching how to address that formula, including a change that would let communities raise their contribution in property taxes without being penalized by equalization.

Using Jenks as an example, he said he wants to let communities raise more for schools, then use the state’s school grading system to measure progress.

“We’re looking at: How do we unlock competition to allow Jenks to do more?” Stitt said. “Furthermore, we want to grade schools to make sure the parents know where their schools are going. …

“But that whole funding formula needs to be looked at, not only for common ed but also career techs and higher ed, kind of mashing those walls together and have somebody overseeing the big picture.”

In Stitt’s address, he discussed the Criminal Justice Reentry, Supervision, Treatment and Opportunity Reform — or RESTORE — Task Force, which has examined issues throughout the criminal justice system — including parole, sentencing and offender classification. He said the task force — which has been meeting behind closed doors — would begin holding open meetings in September.

“Currently, this task force is meeting as six smaller groups,” Stitt said. “They’ve taken the research meetings into communities across the state, visiting with Oklahomans who are part of our criminal justice system or who have been affected by it.”

The “unprecedented deep dive into the criminal justice system” seeks to better classify violent and nonviolent offenders, Stitt said.

It’s part of an effort to examine why Oklahomans are imprisoned 79% longer for drug crimes and 70% longer for property crimes than the national average, Stitt said.

One of two crumpled barges is lifted away from Webbers Falls dam

WEBBERS FALLS — With a series of metallic groans, one of two sunken barges was extracted from its mangled embrace by the Webbers Falls Lock and Dam on Tuesday afternoon.

Tugs and winches separated the barge from the structure as onlookers stood atop an adjacent hillside. Crews had spent a week prepping the crumpled barge for removal and hoped to pry it loose by Wednesday at the latest so they could begin retrieval of the one underneath it.

“It’s amazing the engineering that these guys can figure out and do,” said Dan Casey, who ventured over with his wife from their campsite near Gore to watch. “Just the power and strength of the tug boats.”

Hours earlier, officials had cautioned that removal of both barges could take several days or weeks. But they don’t expect to find serious damage that would further delay the return of barges to the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.

The two barges broke free of their restraints on May 23 during historic flooding. They ultimately crashed into the dam and sank below the floodwater, preventing three of the dam’s gates from being able to close.

The Army Corps of Engineers raised the gates before the impact to avoid damage to them. The Corps has been lowering the water elevation recently to help in retrieval efforts.

“The structure that was contacted was mostly concrete,” said Rodney Beard, chief of navigation for the Corps’ Tulsa District. “So there is some damage to the concrete. But, again, this project was designed to take that kind of impact.”

Beard said engineers will “drop the gates and go in there and inspect the structure while the water’s off of it. … That gives us a great opportunity to get in there and check the damage, check the concrete. Once we’re comfortable that everything is structurally sound and we don’t need to make any on-the-spot repairs, our next goal is to get the pool filled back up.

“So we’re looking at possibly filling the pool within five to seven days.”

The plan is to pull the barges into calm water and cut them up for scrap.

Barges have been unable to traverse the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System, which runs from the Tulsa Port of Catoosa to the Mississippi River, since heavy rain fell in the spring, before the dam collision. Beard said water flow of more than 100,000 cubic feet per second will halt barge movement.

Referencing a study from some years ago, Beard estimated the economic cost for each day barges are unable to traverse the system of locks and dams at approximately $23 million to $25 million.

“We’ve been down long enough. It’s not only an impact to our navigation industry,” Beard said. “We have hydropower plants, we have water permitees upstream. So we’re taking all of that into account, and our goal first and foremost is let’s get back to some kind of normalcy on the system.”

The two barges broke loose from Oakley’s Port 33, which is on the Verdigris River between Tulsa and Inola.

Terminal manager Fred Taylor said just how the barges’ anchorage came loose during the unprecedented river flows and elevations remains under investigation.

“There’s been some barges that have floated loose or had problems with some wires caused by maybe somebody tearing up an anchorage system,” Taylor said. “But other than that, nothing like this.”

He said the shutdown has underscored how vital the navigation channel is not just to Oklahoma but to surrounding states. The barges that sank both carried phosphate rock mined in Florida.

“We’ll get there; it’s going to happen. We’ll get this system back to operating, and hopefully it’ll be … before long,” Taylor said. “Just give us another couple weeks here and we’ll see what we can get done.”

Amazon expects to open Tulsa fulfillment center in second quarter 2020

The Amazon fulfillment center in Oklahoma City celebrated receiving its first item for packaging this week.

It won’t be long before Tulsa can mark such an occasion.

Amazon’s $130 million fulfillment center, 4040 N. 125th East Ave., is expected to open in the second quarter of 2020, the e-commerce company said.

“We anticipate the fulfillment center launching during the second quarter of next year and hiring to begin in the weeks prior to launch day,” Amazon said in a statement through a public relations firm. “We remain committed to hiring 1,500 full-time employees at the facility, with industry-leading pay and benefits starting on day one.”

The Amazon center in Oklahoma City, located near Will Rogers World Airport, will use employees and machines to pack and ship items in its warehouse.

Amazon’s facility in northeast Tulsa, now under construction just east of the QuikTrip distribution center, is four stories tall and encompasses about 600,000 square feet.

Besides full-time jobs, it could generate another 2,500 to 3,500 part-time gigs during the peak season of August through Christmas, Brien Thorstenberg, senior vice president of economic development for the Tulsa Regional Chamber, said earlier this year.

“There will be a tremendous economic impact,” he told the Tulsa World in January. “When you look at the number of jobs and the salaries they are creating, those people will be buying homes, renting homes, spending money in the community. It adds a lot to the tax base.”

Local government incentives included the Tulsa Municipal Utility Authority’s allocation of $1.3 million, which includes a contingency to install a water line along 125th East Avenue and 43rd Street North and a wastewater line along 43rd Street North.

The city also provided $940,000 from its Economic Development Infrastructure Fund for new traffic signals at 36th Street North and Garnett Road and at 46th Street North and 125th East Avenue; and for deceleration/turn lanes at 36th Street North and 125th East Avenue and 46th Street North and 125th East Avenue.

In November 2018, Amazon increased its minimum wage to $15 for all full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal employees across the United States, a move that benefited more than 250,000 employees in addition to 100,000 seasonal employees.

Amazon’s benefits include comprehensive health care, including medical, dental and vision coverage, and up to 20 weeks of paid parental leave, according to the company’s website.

Amazon also has Career Choice, which prepays 95% of associates’ tuition for courses in high-demand fields, whether those jobs are at Amazon or another company, and Career Skills, which trains hourly associates in critical job skills, such as resume writing, effective communication and computer basics.

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Tulsa Police Sgt. Jennifer Murphy talks about the Tulsa Police new reading program and school supply handout at the Darlington Apartments.

Read the story: Tulsa Police Department patrols the reading room in new program

US moves FEMA, Coast Guard money to fund border programs

WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security is moving $271 million from other agencies such as FEMA and the U.S. Coast Guard to increase the number of beds for detained immigrants and support its policy forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases play out.

The news comes as hurricane season is ramping up and Tropical Storm Dorian is heading toward Puerto Rico.

The sprawling 240,000-person Homeland Security Department includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard and the new Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in addition to immigration agencies.

It is not uncommon for unassigned funds to be transferred between agencies under the same department as the fiscal year ends. Last year around the same time, about $200 million was transferred, including $10 million from FEMA that prompted major criticism from Democrats.

Homeland Security officials said in a statement Tuesday they would transfer $155 million to create temporary facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border for holding hearings with the aim of moving asylum cases through the system faster.

The government has sent more than 30,000 people back to Mexico to wait out their immigration cases in an effort to deter migrants from making a dangerous journey to the U.S. and ease the crush of families from Central America that has vastly strained the system.

Asylum seekers generally had been released into the U.S. and allowed to work, but many Trump administration officials believe migrants take advantage of the laws and stop showing up to court. Lawyers for migrants waiting in Mexico have reported major problems reaching clients and getting them to the U.S. for their hearings. And some of the locations in Mexico where migrants are sent are violent and unsafe.

The money will come out of unobligated money from the base disaster relief fund at FEMA, lawmakers said.

Democratic House members strongly disagreed and accused DHS of going around their specific appropriations.

The chairwoman of the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, said the reprogramming would support “inhumane” programs and take away necessary funding for other agencies.

“I am greatly concerned that during the course of this administration, there has been a growing disconnect between the will of Congress ... and the implementation of the Department’s immigration enforcement operations,” she said in a statement.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, said DHS was flouting congressional intent.

“Taking money away from TSA and from FEMA in the middle of hurricane season could have deadly consequences,” he said.

Homeland Security officials will also transfer $116 million to fund detention bed space for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Congress allocated 45,000 beds for detention, but as of Aug. 24, ICE was detaining 54,344 people. Congress specifically did not authorize additional ICE funding for detention beds when it approved an emergency supplemental funding request of about $1.3 billion from Homeland Security to manage the huge increase in migrants.

“Given the rise of single adults crossing the border, ICE has already had to increase the number of detention beds above what Congress funded,” according to the DHS statement. Without the funding increase ICE can’t keep up with apprehensions by Border Patrol.

“This realignment of resources allows DHS to address ongoing border emergency crisis ... while minimizing the risk to overall DHS mission performance,” according to the statement.

More than 860,000 people have been encountered at the Southern border this budget year, a decade-long high. Of that, 432,838 were in families — last year for the whole fiscal year there were only 107,212 in families. The increase has caused vast overcrowding in border facilities and reports of fetid, filthy conditions and children held for weeks in temporary facilities not meant to hold anyone for longer than a few days.

As Tropical Storm Dorian approached the Caribbean and gathered strength, it threatened to turn into a small hurricane that forecasters said could affect the northern Windward Islands and Puerto Rico in upcoming days.