— By Alan Riffel
As you know, the 2012 Oklahoma Legislature is now in session. For municipalities, that means we must monitor closely what actions are moving through the separate committees and chambers to evaluate how they will impact our local citizens.
This is the year that the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan is presented for consideration. Following five years of development by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, this issue has spurred a considerable number of bills to modify its adoption and/or implementation. Coincidentally, there has also been a lawsuit filed by two Native American tribes to seek federal intervention regarding the status of water in our state. Many passionate interests will inevitably complicate the process on this critical matter to the point that I am skeptical about any meaningful resolution occurring this session.
Last year, a measure passed that changed the way in which state agencies implement fee or rate adjustments. Prior to that, fee increases would be submitted to the legislature, and if not rejected, those new rates would automatically go into effect. Now, however, the format is reversed. Any state agency is now required to receive formal approval of proposed increases from both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
That procedural alteration rightfully places a greater burden on the agency to justify any new costs it seeks to impose on consumers. This year, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality is one such agency. It is proposing drastically higher annual fees for permitting and inspecting water providers, such as municipalities and rural water districts. Those cost increases inevitably result in higher rates for local customers. So, we are supporting supplemental funding for ODEQ in lieu of fee increases.
The Oklahoma Municipal League is working with the Oklahoma Bankers’ Association to refine language contained in HB 1893 regarding nuisance abatements of abandoned properties. The crux of the matter is to make it easier for cities and towns to collect monies from abatements on neglected properties that they have to clean up. Often these are absentee owners that don’t take care of the nuisance, and liens filed against the property are seldom suitable resolutions. The effort is to enact legislation that will help these situations without impacting local mortgage holders.
Pension reform is a hot-button topic, with Rep. Randy McDaniel (R-Edmond) leading the charge to put public employee pension systems into an actuarially sound position. In past years, particularly in cash-strapped years, those systems were negatively affected by legislative deeds that ultimately resulted in circumstances that potentially threaten retirement obligations to the members of those systems. To turn those systems around, funding levels from all sides, such as employee contributions, employer contributions, and state appropriations, would have to increase. Because it equates to many millions of dollars, this effort will undoubtedly receive enormous debate.
It was good to hear Gov. Fallin express in her State of the State Address a call for funding of the Oklahoma Emergency Management System, and to eliminate the backlog of unpaid claims due to municipalities across the state from disaster responses. After many years, hopefully, that action will finally be realized.
A lot of other proposed legislation will be scrutinized, which span a litany of subjects affecting cities. Matters from sales tax exemption limitations to unemployment benefit revisions to workers’ compensation reforms, and so on, are but a part of the many items facing our elected officials. And, they each require a great deal of contemplation.
With more than 2000 bills to consider every year, our Senators and Representatives deserve to have the benefit of their constituents’ perspectives. They, and you, can count on the City of Woodward to communicate our viewpoints with them regularly.
Alan Riffel is the Woodward City Manager