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Vote over millions for local nonprofits postponed as Crutcher Foundation, absences discussed

Tulsa city councilors Phil Lakin, center-right, Christian Bengel, center-left, and Jamie Fowler, left,
Max Bryan
Tulsa city councilors Phil Lakin, center-right, Christian Bengel, center-left, and Jamie Fowler, left, and council administrator Sarah Davis, right, discuss American Rescue Plan Act money proposals on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, at City Hall.

The city's American Rescue Plan Act working group has finalized recommendations for how the federal money will be given to nonprofits — but questions still linger over which organizations will make the cut, and over the voting process.

The working group of councilors Phil Lakin, Crista Patrick, Jeannie Cue, Vanessa Hall-Harper and members of the mayor's office have selected 45 nonprofits to receive appropriations from a pot of more than $6.8 million in federal relief money. The nonprofits were selected from a pool of 147 that applied for the money.

Councilors could have voted on the appropriations at their 4 p.m. meeting Wednesday, but didn't because councilors Lori Decter Wright and Grant Miller were both absent for medical reasons.

Carol Jones of city finance said Tulsa has until August of next year to approve the contracts that will send the money to the nonprofits.

"Every week we push is one less week that we’re going to have funds available for the organizations to spend," Jones said.

“I appreciate the time restraints, but personally, I don’t feel comfortable voting with two of the councilors not being here," Hall-Harper said. Patrick noted neither Decter Wright nor Miller are in the ARPA working group.

What's in the list

The list breaks the 45 nonprofits into five categories. Only eight nonprofits would receive their requested amounts if the list is approved as was presented Wednesday.

  • Children & Youth. $521,000 would go to 10 organizations, including $100,000 to Drexel Academy Elementary School and The Common Good and $80,000 to Child Abuse Network. Under The Canopy Inc. ($35,000) and Birthright Living Legacy, Inc. ($43,200) would receive their requested amounts if the list is approved as is.
  • Financial Security. $757,201 would go to six organizations, including $462,201 to the Terence Crutcher Foundation and $162,743 to LT Operating Foundation. Goodwill's Tulsa operations would receive their requested amount of $172,700 if the list is approved.
  • Food Security. More than $1 million would go to seven organizations, including $1 million as requested by the Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma and $500,000 as requested by Tulsa's Meals on Wheels operation. Crossover Community Impact, Inc. would also receive $165,000 as requested. Iron Gates request would be lowered from $393,000 to $175,000 if the list is approved.
  • Housing. More than $2 million would go to seven organizations, including $900,000 to Tulsa Economic Development Corporation, $975,696 to Growing Together Inc. and $600,000 to Center for Housing Solutions, Inc.'s mental health efforts. Urban Strategies, Inc. requested $110,000 but would receive $50,000 if the list is approved.
  • Healthcare. More than $2.4 million would be given to 15 organizations, including $1 million to Counseling & Recovery Services of Oklahoma, Inc. and $200,000 to Family & Children's Services and Tulsa CARES. Only the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra would receive its requested amount of $37,991. Community Health Connection, Inc. would receive half of the $100,000 it requested.

Voting on 'important work'

Even as councilors decided to not vote until Decter Wright and Miller returned, they still had questions about the list and the process — specifically concerning their ability to vote in two weeks, when the vote is scheduled to go forward and the Terence Crutcher Foundation's presence on the list.

Council administrator Sarah Davis said all councilors who planned to vote for the ARPA list would need to be present. She said more absences are possible with the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

"If we're making exceptions today for two — which is totally fine — then we need to have all nine here," Lakin said. "If nine of us aren't here next time because one of us gets COVID, then we're not giving that person who's here the opportunity to vote on important work."

Councilor Laura Bellis said she and others outside the ARPA work group had just gotten the documents related to the list. She said the two weeks would give them time to look through the list and make more informed decisions when it's time to vote.

Council's Wednesday vote was slated for its 4 p.m. meeting, which is not televised. Councilors' opportunity to vote Oct. 11 is scheduled for the same meeting.

When Hall-Harper asked why the vote was specifically scheduled for 4 p.m., Davis said council could schedule the meeting for 5 p.m., which is held in council chambers and commonly holds items they vote on in front of constituents. But Davis also said it's likely that audience members who sign up to comment are going to be part of the organizations asking for money.

"I don't know how that would go with all the recusals we would have to have," Patrick said. "If someone makes a public comment, then it would be like, 'What are you talking about? Alright, you leave, you leave, you leave. Alright, go ahead.'"

Davis said the list, when passed, will lead to city budget items that constituents may sign up to comment on.

While the working group and councilors have had previous opportunities to remove nonprofits from the list, organizations could still be removed before the final vote. Councilor and mayoral candidate Jayme Fowler asked to remove the Crutcher Foundation from the list of recipients and did not specify why when asked.

"Right now, I have nothing to add until there's a full vetting by all councilors and an actual vote," Fowler said in a statement given to Public Radio Tulsa Thursday.

According to its website, the Crutcher Foundation aims "to identify, prevent, and confront racial inequities in Tulsa, Oklahoma and across the country" and "to create just and liberated communities free from racial violence and harm." The organization has pushed for for reparations for the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre and petitioned for police reform in the city. It was founded in memory of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed Black man who was killed by Tulsa police in 2016.

Miller requested the Crutcher Foundation be removed from ARPA consideration at a meeting in May. It received a 4-4 vote, which kept it on the list.

Councilor Christian Bengel — who voted to remove the organization from consideration in May — said he was concerned about the Crutcher Foundation purchasing property with deficiencies and using ARPA money to fix it. Jones told Bengel the Crutcher Foundation wouldn't have been considered if their plans to use the money didn't fall within federal guidelines for the appropriation.

Past challenges

Councilors have faced previous hurdles in the ARPA selection process as well.

At the May meeting, litigation against more than half of council from Greenwood Chamber of Commerce President Freeman Culver kept them from voting for organizations ostensibly run by Culver.

In January, Lakin was criticized when he admitted the work group had chosen which nonprofits could apply for the money without explicit selection criteria.

Lakin said in May that a scoring rubric would be used in the next selection phase.

Max Bryan is a news anchor and reporter for KWGS. A Tulsa native, Bryan worked at newspapers throughout Arkansas and in Norman before coming home to "the most underrated city in America." Several of Bryan's news stories have either led to or been cited in changes both in the public and private sectors.