Proposed bill could end decades-long relationship between blind entrepreneurs and Tulsa County Jail

Posted at 1:58 AM, Jan 31, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-31 10:28:28-05

TULSA-- Proposed legislation could impact legally blind entrepreneurs who benefit from a decades-long law designed to put disabled people to work.  The bills could make the Tulsa County Jail exempt from a law giving blind people priority for contracts to run vending machines and similar businesses inside government buildings.

Mike Spencer  lost his vision in the 1990's and through the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, he was able to start his own vending businesses before landing a contract with the Tulsa County Jail to run the commissary.

But Spencer knows his time running the commissary for inmates could soon be up. He says his contract won;t be renewed and the sheriff is looking to run the commissary He says people with disabilities who want to work should be given the opportunity to earn a living and stop relying on government assistance.

"Losing my vision was pretty devastating, but going to the Social Security Administration after a while and saying 'I don't need your benefits' that was probably the best day of my life," Spencer said.

Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado says the jail is severely under-funded and the facility could benefit from the approximately $500,000 in revenue from the commissary. Sheriff Regalado says there hasn't been any problems with how the commissary currently operates. But he says additional revenue is needed for day-to-day operations, training, and equipment inside the jail. The sheriff insists this is one way to raise money without asking taxpayers for it.

"This is not about the operator or the job that they have done this is simply about being able to adequately assist in funding the operational costs of the jail," Regalado said.

Stewart pays Tulsa County jail approximately $110,000 which he says is 18 percent of revenues.

Sheriff Regalado says they can run the commissary with jail staff and reap most of the $500,000 in annual revenue the commissary provides.

The program that gives people like Spencer a chance to own a business is called the Randolph-Sheppard Act. That federal program aimed to put blind people to work-- giving blind entrepreneurs priority in operating snack bars, vending machines and similar businesses inside federal buildings. The federal version was implemented in 1936 and Oklahoma expanded it to state and county-owned buildings one year later.

The Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services works with nearly 13,000 people with disabilities in the state. The Commission for Rehabilitation Services has implemented a waiting list due to budget cuts totaling nearly $5 million from state and federal sources.

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