McAlester city councilors await an opinion from City Attorney Bill Ervin as to the legality of Ward 6 City Councilor Zach Prichard’s proposal to grant taxpayer funds to downtown property owners to help them pay for installing water sprinkler systems in their buildings.
City councilors split by a 5-to-2 vote Tuesday night on a motion to postpone a council vote on Prichard’s request until its legality is determined.
Prichard wants the city to create its own grant program, which would pay up to 50 percent or $15,000 of the cost of installing a fire safety system — usually referred to as a water sprinkler system.
Those voting in favor of postponing action on Prichard’s request until the city attorney issues an opinion on its legality were Mayor John Browne, Ward 1 Councilor Weldon Smith, Ward 3 Councilor Travis Read, Ward 4 Councilor James Brown and Ward 5 Councilor Maureen Harrison.
Voting “no” against getting an opinion from the city attorney as to whether what was proposed is legal were Prichard and Ward 2 Councilor Cully Stevens.
Councilors discussed the matter at length before taking a vote.
It was listed on the council agenda as “Consider and act upon approval and implementation of a fire safety grant program within the city of McAlester historical commercial districts and to be funded from the city’s Hotel Tax Collections.”
A report accompanying the measure referred to the impact of historic districts on tourism and the potential economic impact upon the city. It also noted the condition of some of the structures.
“Some buildings remain wholly vacant, while many more are only partially occupied,” a city document states. “In order to encourage the safe, cohesive and timely preservation of the districts,” Prichard is asking his fellow councilors to enact the grant program.
If passed, the grant program would allow successful applicants in the downtown Choctaw Avenue area and parts of the city’s Old Town to receive reimbursements for installing a fire safety system — usually referred to as a water sprinkler system.
Prichard’s proposal asks the city to pay up to 50 percent or $15,000 of the cost of installing a fire safety system, with the city paying whichever is less.
Those applying would have to submit an application to the city’s Community Development director before beginning construction. They would be required to explain what they are doing and how it will enhance the district’s historic character. They would also be required to get at least two quotes from those licensed to do the work and would be required to take the lowest one.
Applications would be reviewed by the members of the city staff, who would then make recommendations to city councilors.
Mayor Browne said he would prefer to wait until he has the opportunity to make a proposal of his own to the Downtown Tax Increment Financing Committee. The city recently rejected a Downtown TIF proposal submitted by Prichard.
Prichard said he saw no need to wait to hear the mayor’s TIF proposal before the council voted on Prichard’s fire safety grant proposal.
Neither did Ward 2 Councilor Stevens, a realtor who acknowledged he had interests in the downtown area. Stevens said he knows of a person that would have to pay $40,000 for a fire suppression system, so $15,000 wouldn’t begin to pay the cost.
When Browne reiterated his point, so did Stevens.
“Quite frankly, I just don’t agree with you,” Stevens said.
Ward 3 Councilor Read interjected his thoughts on Prichard’s proposal.
“I don’t support using any public money to improve private property,” Read said.
Prior to Prichard’s proposal, city councilors passed a budget amendment that allocated $100,000 for Capital Outlay for city parks and another $100,000 for capital outlay for the city’s historic district.
At one point during the discussion over the proposed fire safety grants, Prichard indicated the council had already voted to approve funding the fire safety program by allocating the $100,000 for capital outlays for the city’s “historic district.”
Read disagreed with that assessment of the purpose of the $100,000 the council allocated as “historic district” funds.
“I think Councilman Prichard is being a little disingenuous when he said we’ve already voted for it,” Read said. Councilor Read said he considered the vote to be for allocating $100,000 to the historic district — but the council did not specify it as being for a fire safety grant program for private property owners.
“There is other uses for this money other than improving private property,” Read said. “I believe it’s illegal to do this.”
When City Attorney Ervin was asked about the matter, he said, “You can’t expend public funds for private property unless it’s allowed by law.”
That’s the case with Tax Increment Financing Districts for example — but Prichard’s proposal was not part of any TIF program.