County receives briefing on mechanism to fund jail expansion

The Douglas County Commission on Wednesday received a briefing on how to create a Public Building Commission, a financing mechanism county leaders will consider using to fund a county jail expansion and other projects.

Creating a Public Building Commission is a strategy employed throughout Kansas that allows local governments to raise funds for building projects by issuing bonds without voter approval.

Compared with city governments, counties have fewer options to raise capital for various projects. They can issue bonds after receiving voter approval; hold an election for a sales tax increase after receiving approval from the Legislature; or create a building commission.

The county is currently researching how to best expand its jail facility to better accommodate rising inmate populations and individuals with mental health needs. Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said in November he believes an expansion may run between $20 million and $30 million.

Weinaug has said he expects the jail expansion to impact the mill levy. County officials believe the project will need to happen within the next three years.

Attorney Joe Norton, who gave a presentation on building commissions Wednesday, said about 20 or 25 counties in Kansas have already created one. Johnson County, Franklin County and the city of Topeka, for example, all have building commissions.

A building commission would be composed of individuals appointed by county commissioners, who would then issue bonds on behalf of the county.

The issuance of the bonds by the building commission are subject to public protest, Norton said. If 5 percent of registered voters file a petition in protest, it would then force an election on whether to issue the bonds.

When asked how likely it is the County Commission would pursue a building commission, commissioners only said it is something they would continue to evaluate. But Weinaug said separately he “anticipate(s) we probably will” create a building commission.

Once a building commission is formed, it can also be used for other projects as well. The mechanism is also being considered to fund part of the coming $6.5 million renovation to the county’s fairgrounds. Construction is anticipated to begin in 2015, whereas no construction date for the jail has been identified.

Should the county create a building commission without interrupting construction plans for the fairgrounds, one would need to be established within four or five months, said Sarah Plinsky, assistant county administrator.