A fear of taxpayer backlash has Douglas County commissioners treading lightly over preliminary steps to solve the overcrowding crisis at the county jail.
Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug proposed a resolution Wednesday that would exempt the county from the state budget-lid law so commissioners can increase 1994 taxes to finance operation of a proposed 50-bed minimum-security jail.
The estimated operation cost of such a jail is $600,000 a year, the equivalent of about a 1.5-mill tax increase. That figure does not include construction costs. A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of a property's assessed value.
Weinaug said the resolution he proposed would not raise taxes; it would allow an increase only if the crisis required action in the coming year.
"We have to be confident that we have the means to operate a facility before we make a commitment to build it," Weinaug said.
Law enforcement officials have repeatedly warned commissioners of a potential inmate lawsuit stemming from overcrowded conditions. The courts could force the construction of a new jail if a lawsuit were successful, Weinaug said.
The Douglas County Corrections Council, composed of officials from every level of the legal process, recommended constructing or leasing a minimum-security center to ease overcrowding.
Between 15 and 20 inmates now leave the jail during the day to work and return at night. Those inmates could be transferred to the minimum-security center.
However, commissioners expressed doubts that taxpayers would rally around either a potential tax hike or construction bond issue without being included in discussions.
"This community doesn't realize the problem we have in the facility over there," Commissioner Mark Buhler said. "We can't operate in a vacuum. If we rig this to go to ballot at the same time as a new school or public transit, I know where that will go. We're last."
Besides a minimum-security jail, Commissioner Jim Chappell said, the county faces possible expenditures for a larger maximum-security jail and for security measures at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center.
"All I'm hearing is minimum security," he said. "That doesn't sound to me like a comprehensive plan. ... It's all part of a big puzzle."
Chappell said he would hate to raise taxes for one project in 1994, only to seek more in 1995 to address the same problem.
Weinaug has proposed the exemption as a charter resolution, which requires a unanimous vote and allows residents to petition the decision, forcing a countywide referendum.
"We can keep talking about it," Commission Chairman Louie McElhaney said, ending Wednesday's discussion.
Also on Wednesday, commissioners unanimously approved:
-- An emergency purchase of a part to repair a steel roller. The roller is used for road repair. The repair cost $2,421.
-- A request from the Tauy Creek Watershed District to build a dam to mitigate potential flooding and soil erosion in the district. The dam would be built on private property in Marion Township, southwest of Lawrence. The project does not require county funding.