By John M. Wylie II, Editor
It’s bad enough that Rogers County must hold a new election in August reauthorizing the penny sales tax for roads because a legal notice was not published.
Now, there may be a problem with an even more important election—the one a year ago that authorized collection of a 1/3-cent sales tax to pay off the huge judgment against the county in the Material Service case.
Yes, you read that correctly. The Office of the State Auditor and Inspector called the Rogers County Election Board Tuesday asking for a copy of the ballot language used in that election.
And as Election Board Secretary Julie Dermody points out, there is a problem with that language. At this point, what that problem means is anybody’s guess but the county’s worst nightmare would be if we are required to vote again on the tax—especially if a court decided the county also had to refund all the money collected since last October.
It sounds silly, and we hope that logic prevails. But a strict reading of the ballot language means that the tax approved by voters is supposed to pay off a debt that Rogers Countyd oesn’t owe in a Mayes County foreclosure action in which the county had absolutely no involvement.
How could that happen? The same way the whole Material Service mess happened in the beginning—there was a little “oops.”
We won’t go through the whole tortured history of Material Service, but the “oops” involved was failure to publish a legal notice about a public hearing on whether to zone the land near Oologah that the company had leased for limestone mining.
When the whole thing was dragged out for years and the case was tried in Mayes County where the local paper refers to Claremore residents and county leaders as Claremorons—Bingo, the county wound up owing north of $30 million in judgments, legal fees, interest and costs.
To avoid ruinous property tax hikes to pay the bill, county officials came up with a complex plan funded by the 1/3-cent tax so the company got its money and local taxpayers—assisted by out-of-county shoppers—paid the bill in smaller, more affordable installments.
The question raised by the Auditor’s office is simple: Is that what the ballot says? And the answer is—if you are a Rogers County resident with a name other than Rip Van Winkle, it does. But if you’re one of those teacher’s pets who believe that a backwards letter condemns a 20-page term paper to an “F”, it doesn’t.
The Material Service case had two numbers. It was filed in Rogers County District Court under the number CJ-2004-234. But it was actually tried before a judge and jury in Mayes County, and for the brief time it was actually in Mayes County District Court they had to give it a new number, CV-2009-42.
And you guessed it—when the ballot language was written, it said money generated by the sales tax was to be used by Rogers County solely “for the purpose of satisfying (its) debt in Case No. CJ-2004-234 in the District Court of Mayes County, Oklahoma, which would otherwise be paid by ad valorem taxes.”
It never mentions Material Service, it never mentions Rogers County District Court, and it never uses the Mayes County case number.
If you look up the case number listed on the ballot in Mayes County District Court records, you find the foreclosure action.
It was filed by Walter Mortgage Co. of Oklahoma City against Donald R. Cowan of Chouteau, Donald Ray Cowan of Chouteau, John Doe, and the occupant or tenants of the property involved.
Not a word about Rogers County.
The case was a breeze compared to Material Service, which lasted a decade or so. The foreclosure case was filed Oct. 14, 2004 and the property was sold by the sheriff less than a year later.
Walter Mortgage got what it wanted. Rogers County had nothing whatever to do with it. And therein lies the problem—what did voters actually vote to pay?
So now we have a whole new bunch of questions.
Has it been long enough since the election that no challenge is possible?
We hope so, but there’s no way to know for sure right now.
Will the auditors pursue it?
We hope not, but auditors are paid to be picky so there’s no way to know for sure what they’ll do.
Will some irate citizen who hates county government, taxes, or both make this an issue?
We hope not, but who could have predicted today’s state of the U.S. House and its band of representatives who hate government, taxes, or both?
And finally, will we ever hear the end of the Material Service saga?
We certainly hope so. But if this hope were a horse at Will Rogers Downs, it would probably leave the starting gate with odds in the range of 100,000-to-1. And last time we looked, the infield tote board doesn’t go that high.