Jennifer Loren, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- In her monthly newspaper column last week, Governor Mary Fallin praised the Oklahoma Department of Transportation for leading the way in making state agencies smaller, smarter and more efficient.
She also noted that ODOT was paying for its centennial celebration through public-private partnerships. But that's not exactly the case. In fact, the agency spent more than $100,000 in taxpayer money on the celebration.
In 1911 traveling Oklahomans in the midst of the oil boom must have packed a gallon of ambition with each gallon of gas, navigating roads and trails that were a muddy mess at best.
Then the state created a highway department.
One hundred years later, the highway system is booming with more than 30,000 miles of paved roads. It's one of the largest state transportation systems in the country.
But all of those highway miles and bridges require maintenance.
Oklahoma is ranked second in the nation for worst bridges. It's a list ODOT has been on for years. The agency blames the damaging distinction on deficient funding.
In fact, an ODOT spokesperson recently complained that the agency was being forced to spend its money on other things, like memorial highway signs which cost ODOT about $36,000 dollars.
"Even though it may be, it may appear small in our budget, every penny does count," Terri Angier, an ODOT spokesperson, said.
If every penny counts, many people want to know why ODOT is spending 11 million pennies, or about $110,000 on a campaign to celebrate its centennial.
The commemoration includes a documentary that cost $1,000 for the audio/visuals, plus part-time contract help for $12,000 dollars.
That part-time employee also worked on a commemorative coffee table book. ODOT printed 3,000 copies for $58,000.
Agency employees are also handing out 3,000 copies of a commemorative calendar, signed by the director of ODOT, at a cost of $2,800.
There are lapel pins for ODOT employees that cost $3,500 and nine outdoor banners for $2,000. The list of commemorative keepsakes goes on: educational trunks, brochures, a short film.
It all totals nearly $110,000.
The Oklahoma Impact team asked the people who are paying for it, Oklahoma taxpayers, what they think.
"They ought to put it on the roads," one man said.
"What a waste. Who cares?" said another.
"I think our government overspends in a zillion ways just like everyone else, and they all do it and they're doing it too," one woman said.
ODOT employees in charge of the celebration argue much of it is being done at no cost to taxpayers.
"We have tried extremely hard to minimize the costs associated with this," Kenna Mitchell, an ODOT spokesperson, said.
But, they say a 100 year anniversary must be properly documented and the agency set aside money in preparation.
"It's really a very unique time for us to stop, reflect back on how transportation has changed the state, and to also share this story with folks as we move forward to the future," Mitchell said.
Mitchell says so far the feedback has been great, but she says she knows some will be critical of this type of spending.
"We get people saying why spend money here when you could spend money here. But we do want people to know we have been extremely careful with the planning," she said.
The documentary has already aired on OETA, but the centennial celebration continues through 2011.
ODOT plans to recoup as much as half the money by selling the coffee table books for $25 each.
The Oklahoma Impact team asked the Governor and legislative leaders if they approve of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation spending nearly $110,000 on to commemorate its centennial celebration:
"Oklahoma's transportation infrastructure and safety continue to improve under Secretary Ridley's leadership, as evidenced by the rehabilitation or replacement of more than 530 bridges since 2006 and by the installation of more than 400 miles of median cable barrier since first introduced in Oklahoma in 2001," Alex Weintz said.
"Additionally, ODOT works with our state and federal leaders to fund critical highway projects without any new or additional taxes, following accountable funding methods and making self-imposed internal cuts to help put every available dollar to use," he added. "Governor Fallin believes the department's record and specifically Secretary Ridley's record as a good steward of taxpayer dollars is clear."
"I am not specifically familiar with the expenditures in question, but it is certainly concerning that a state agency would spend $110,000 on coffee table books and lapel pins when Oklahoma is facing serious ongoing budget constraints. The Legislature has been very clear to state agencies that core services are to be the priority during this budget struggle." – House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee.