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When the Norman City Council recently voted to give money to the long-awaited Senior Wellness Center, some citizens were left with lingering questions.

During the rescheduled meeting Oct. 29, the City Council approved a staff recommendation to use CARES (Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security) Act funds for a construction supplement to complete the proposed Senior Wellness Center. The project is $4.8 million short of the estimated $12.1 million to construct the center.

The project is part of the half-cent Norman Forward Sales Tax Fund initiative, which was approved by voters in 2015. As sales tax growth continued to lag, the City Council attempted to pass a general obligation bond in August 2020 to make up for the shortfall in several projects, but voters declined all four bond issues.

The council recently discussed the funding and allocation during its Oct. 16 and 17 retreat. Unfortunately, those proceedings were not streamed for the public. That lack of transparency is not good government.

Several citizens have complained that the funds should be spent elsewhere and asked for more time to offer public input. The item had been placed on the consent agenda but was pulled for discussion and a separate vote.

It was bad form to have an expenditure that size on the consent docket in the first place. If actions are well-intentioned, it’s best to be transparent about it. 

Of the $9.6 million reimbursed, a little more than $1 million total will go to Visit Norman and the Norman Arts Council, both of which city officials say were hit hard due to dependence on room tax. That appears to be a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and makes practical sense.

One argument is that reimbursement funds are intended to be broad. We’re not sure the CARES Act funds are best suited for funding the senior center. In that case, we’re using COVID funds to pay for a preplanned project missing money. 

When we’re moving money from one project to another, we don’t want to get in debt when money is needed for another project.

In a perfect world, we would have a one-year master plan for the public. It would project needs and define intentions in coordination with state government. We realize this is a pandemic, but planning seems to be month-to-month, and there’s no end to that.

Many local businesses in our city are affected by COVID-19. Nonprofits strained by the outbreak are reducing staff and services to community members with dwindling donations, and most could not have fundraisers like previous years. The school systems, Cleveland County Health Department, Cleveland County courthouse or court systems all have expressed hardships and needs.

We’re not out of this pandemic yet, and our city may not receive any more funding. We have trouble seeing the senior center linked to COVID.

The Norman Transcript Editorial Board includes Publisher Mark Millsap, Editor Rob Collins and guest members Brandi Coyner, Keith Gaddie, Kathy Haney, Karlos Hill, Marc Nuttle and Michael Ridgeway. For comments or questions, please email editor@normantranscript.com.

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