Oklahoma taxpayers pay the rent instead of using state-owned buildings
By Phil Cross
Imagine owning your home, but paying rent so you could live somewhere else. That is exactly what is happening across the state as agencies rent office space instead of occupying current state-owned buildings. In some cases you are paying for buildings to deteriorate while they remain empty. One of the smallest-scale examples is the third floor of the building that houses the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. It was originally home to the Agriculture lab, but the lab moved leaving the entire floor vacant. "It's existing office space and we ought to be utilizing it," said Jim Reese the Secretary and Commissioner of Agriculture, "We're making every effort to do so." Reese says the building is actually owned by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, or OMES. That agency is responsible for the renovation and for ultimately finding a new tenant for the building. "We have lots of suitors that want the space and OMES is interested in filling the space," Reese told Fox 25. The fix is not that simple for other vacant office space. "Right now we're just spending money on an empty building," said John Estus a spokesman for OMES, "Which is something we're not too excited about." Estus said most of the state's office space is full, which is why many agencies have to rent space. However there are exceptions, like the old National Guard Armory building. It needs millions of dollars' worth of work to fix serious structural and environmental issues. It is a similar story for the former OSBI lab building. "That building could be used as office space as well, but it is in bad shape it does have some environmental issues it has some structural issues it could be a pretty quick fix if funds were made available to fix it," Estus told Fox 25, "It's a logical home for a state agency." However money is not available to fix it immediately and the building's issues date back to before the state stopped using it. The question becomes why are buildings in such bad shape? "You can't blame these agencies directors for choosing to provide services to the public over their building, but that has been going on for so long we need to reevaluate how we're managing our buildings," Estus said. The OMES has recently begun a process of cataloging state property and treating as a whole rather than letting individual agencies pick and choose which repairs they can afford. "You don't get a lot of credit as a lawmaker if you actually maintain infrastructure because sometimes to maintain infrastructure you have to say no to new things," said Jonathan Small with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Small says it may be time for the state to cut its losses and sell off some unused property in order to raise the money to pay off other much-needed repairs. "We've got to make a good attempt to maximize the resources that taxpayer are giving the government," Small told Fox 25. The OCPA agrees it is sometimes cheaper to rent space than it would be to build new buildings. But the group believes making the most of state space starts with making the most out of every tax dollar. That includes how the state spent money renovating offices at the capitol building while neglecting much needed exterior repairs. "There was too much attention showed to trying to expand the size of offices or expanding existing agencies size in the capitol when there were probably more pressing needs that needed to take place," Small said. The renovations were tucked into a previous budget and added up to more than $7 million for the House and Senate. "That's seven and a half million dollars that could have corrected a safety concern on the external of the capitol," Small said. OMES says the capitol could also be used to house other state agencies, which are currently renting private office space. Estus said the OMES has recently started a long-range planning commission to look at the state's office space needs to see what space could be easily renovated and how the state can make the most out of what taxpayers have already purchased.
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