On a night when the Luther Town Board trustees were asked to state their priority projects for the first quarter of the new year, it was clear that a large group of Luther residents wanted to talk turnpike.
Before any of the town trustees arrived to the meeting, more than 40 neighbors had gathered with homemade signs to commiserate about the proposed $300 million 21-mile swath to connect the Turner Turnpike to I-40 through farmland, vineyards and dream homes. Oklahoma Turnpike Authority Interim Director Neal McCaleb said Monday that the study area for the road is down Peebly Road including a mile on either side, and he said an effort will be made to avoid as many homes as possible.
Still, the group “Citizens Opposed to the Eastern Oklahoma Loop Turnpike” as they are known on Facebook, is on a mission to attend as many meetings as possible to get their opposition heard.
The trouble was, Luther’s Town Board does not allow public comments, so the group observed the proceedings. As the agenda progressed, the neighbors observed the town board in action as trustees received an audit report, noted their top priorities of addressing serious and expensive concerns with the town’s water and sewer services and updating personnel policies and ordinances. They also learned that a new Automatic Electronic Defibrillator (AED) was needed for the fire department at a cost of $2,500 although they could really use two AEDs.
When the agenda progressed to the item to appoint a new member to the Luther Economic Development Authority, a couple of citizens spoke up, tying “economic development” to the turnpike issue. It was a good try, and the impassioned comments reflected what many are concerned about: losing their land, their homes and their quiet country lifestyles.
“I have three vineyards on Peebly Road. All three are in the potential path to this turnpike. I like Luther because this is where I bring my grapes and I use the hardware store and feed store for supplies. I’m really upset that a turnpike corporation that makes money off of tolls can take our land through eminent domain,” said Steve Hills.
Steering the comments back to the agenda item, Mayor Lea Ann Jackson said the trustees would hear their concerns at their February 9 meeting. Later Jackson said the board regrets not being able to hear from fellow citizens.
“I know there were a lot of people present just for that topic. The Town Board will not have any influence, for or against, when it comes to the turnpike,” said Jackson. Still, the board will explore adding public comments to future meetings, on this and other topics.
Trustee Carolyn Lawson said even if Luther was against the project, other towns such as Harrah and Choctaw are for it.
“They’re going to have to go on into the capitol and talk to their representatives. I feel sorry for them, but it’s (the turnpike) gonna go,” said Lawson who was appointed to the Luther Economic Development Authority.
After the meeting, Fire Chief Jason Miller said the issue is a double-edged sword. “I love this town and understand the frustration and fear of neighbors who might be relocated or inconvenienced by the turnpike. But we are also asked to provide more services without an adequate tax base. It’s tough.”
Recall that Miller, along volunteer firefighter Brett Conner earlier in the meeting, asked for just one defibrillator, when they could really use two, but the town can’t afford it. The fire department went out on 29 calls in December, with more than half of those being EMT (medical) calls.
Other highlights of the meeting which likely will result in more stories:
- Report of the FY2015 Audit. No glaring problems; except the auditor called the town’s accounting software “horrible” (so the town is switching to QuickBooks); and like we heard at the Luther School Board Meeting the night before, auditors want more “segregation of duties” – meaning more than one person needs to handle the money and reconcile the bank accounts. (That audit cost $10K).
- The Fire Chief and the Treasurer gave detailed reports in a new agenda feature, but not the Police Chief. Trustee Ron Henry moved that the Police Chief participate in the new practice of reporting on their work to improve accountability. The motion was seconded and passed.
- Mayor Jackson put town department heads on notice to have a first draft of their next budget done in 45 days.
- Appointed Josh Rowton officially to the Planning Commission.
- Heard from a citizen who moved back to Luther after a military career. “You guys are a product of your citizenship and you are here to serve those folks. But this is three meetings in a row (I’ve attended) to see if citizens can speak to you and that is obviously not happening. The relationship you have right now with your citizens is fragile at best,” he said. Mayor Jackson assured him they are working on many of his concerns.
- Look for a special meeting this month to take care of paying the bills. There were too many questions to be answered, so the board tabled the consent agenda. One question involved itemization of the new town attorney’s first $2,287 bill after he settled the “who is mayor” dispute and other matters.
- “Understanding the Role of Elected Officials” will be a regional training offered on January 28, at 6:30 pm at the community building. Presented by Oklahoma Municipal Assurance Group (OMAG). The town board voted to spend $200 on refreshments.