Waste Watch: State Surplus

Waste Watch: State Surplus

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Empty lots, officers and aircraft hangers are all things you're paying to keep. They all top the list of underused or sometimes just plain vacant property that's on the books for the state of Oklahoma. The worst part, until recently no one in the state really knew we owned them.

"It was shocking, you would never run a business where the business didn't know what it owned," said State Representative Jason Murphey of Guthrie.

Murphey was one of the lawmakers, along with current House Speaker T.W. Shannon, who called for a complete inventory of all state-owned properties. When the list was finally compiled, the results were surprising. Some of the state-owned properties are not even being used by the state.

"The big example close to here is the armory, which is right down the road and prime commercial property and could easily be privatized and put back in the commercial sector," said Murphey. "That commercial property could be developed and have it generate tax income for the city and the state."

Murphey and other lawmakers want state agencies to sell off the properties they are not using or are underusing. The money made from the sale would go into a fund that would help fix the properties we are using, like the State Capitol building.

"There are potentially a lot of properties sitting out there that are underutilized. They are not generating tax income they are just being sat upon by a government agency that might be protecting its turf," Murphey told Fox 25.

Sometimes it is literally an agency's turf. Take for instance the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse's property at 5903 NW 52nd Street in Warr Acres. The lot is nearly an acre and neighbors say it was once a home for deaf children. "Then they let it sit and let it totally deteriorate," said Dennis Hutchins who lives across the street.

"It was starting to fall apart and then they came and just ripped out everything including the concrete and it has been sitting like this for I don't know how long," Hutchins told Fox 25.

The demolition project cost $29,000 and the agency says it has no plans for the lot. No plans to build, sell or develop.

"This devalues the entire block to have this thing," Hutchins complained, "It gets weeds this tall. It's an eye sore and it could be used for a wonderful home."

Besides empty lots there are empty buildings you're paying to keep or in some cases paying to create public nuisances. City leaders in Burns Flat say the Oklahoma Spaceport has done a poor job keeping up the hangers and other buildings at the old airport runway.

"It's a private industry issue or a local issue for those who can put their money where their mouth is," Murphey said of the Spaceport and the multi-million dollar investment the state has made into developing private space travel. You may have noticed, there are still no sub-orbital flights taking off from the Sooner State.

"It's not necessarily an issue that these programs we are currently funding aren't good programs; it's just that they might not be the best possible use of tax payer money," said Tina Dzurisin of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

The OCPA is a non-profit organization that promotes public policy from a more conservative perspective. "When you start to look at the state budget it's really kind of astonishing on how much we spend on what could never be considered as a core function of government," Dzurisin said.

"We identified that if the state sold off assets that it currently holds that are underutilized we could save $25 million in this year we could have saved $25 million next year."

Lawmakers like Murphey agree that the state spends too much preserving properties we don't use. However the issue goes deeper than just empty offices. Murphey says the state is also running businesses they have no business running.

"That's just bad, bad policy the state shouldn't be in the business of running competition of private sector businesses." Murphey says one of the most public examples is the state-run golf courses; golf course that this past year lost $160,000 during their most profitable year yet.

"Those courses should be in the private sector where they are going to generate tax revenue as opposed to being subsidized by tax payers," Murphey said.

The state department of Tourism disagrees. The Tourism Department runs the courses and says they are on track to become self-sufficient, but admits the courses were not managed well in the past.

"Our facilities were not really being promoted properly," said Kris Marek the State Parks Director with the Oklahoma Department of Tourism. "It's not unreasonable to believe that if you properly market and tell the public about the facilities you have available you can do a lot better than you have in the past."

Marek says the golf courses are a needed attraction for many state parks and provide direct and indirect benefits to the state. The courses also offer access to golf and the great outdoors that many people may not be able to afford otherwise. "The private courses are charging rates that are not necessarily accessible to most Oklahomans."

Privatizing courses may not be as easy as it sounds. Marek says they could likely not find a buyer for seven golf courses. "There are not a lot of private businesses that run golf courses. The bulk of the golf courses in Oklahoma really are public courses." The Department of Tourism says if they can get the courses to a point where they break-even or even make money there would be no benefit to selling them.

However the Tourism Department has adopted some private business principles. In the past many concessions at state parks were run by the state. Now most of those are contracted out to private vendors. This past year they made $19 million while paying fees to the state to operate on its property and paying back tax money. That is one of the things that helped lead to marked improvements in the business performance of state parks as a whole.

"We have had over 22% reduction in state appropriations to the department, but reached 71% self-sufficiency," Marek said.

While OCPA may disagree with state-run golf courses, they do say the Tourism Department has made improvements in efficiency. In fact the OCPA says Tourism should be handling more responsibilities. "The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission essentially performs a tourism department function," Dzurisin said.

Dzurisin says duplication of state services is also and could be stopped if lawmakers worked to combine agencies that perform similar functions. "I think it's not unreasonable when there's duplication or inefficiency that maybe we should be cutting back just a little bit."

"If we did decide to put money into repairing the capitol instead of these various things," Dzurisin said, "We could have that building that is already a public building, looking beautiful and not at all in disrepair."

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