County will pursue bill allowing it to hold sales tax referendum

Douglas County will work to introduce legislation that would allow it to hold a referendum on imposing a sales tax to fund a jail expansion and possibly a separate facility for mental health treatment.

Counties in Kansas cannot hold sales tax referendums without first receiving approval from the Legislature. The Douglas County Commission at its Wednesday meeting unanimously voted to direct county staff to pursue the introduction of a bill as a way to keep its options open as it studies how to best respond to rising inmate populations and a greater need to provide mental health assistance to prisoners.

County Administrator Craig Weinaug also said Wednesday that the county is now considering the construction of a separate mental health crisis intervention center to divert certain inmates away from the jail, in addition to expanding the jail itself.

That facility would likely be located near Lawrence Memorial Hospital or the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.

“We are just now exploring the data to determine how much smaller we can make the next jail expansion if we find a better way to treat people who have mental health issues,” he said.

Weinaug reiterated Wednesday that the project would cost at least $20 million, but that a true estimate could not be known at this stage with information still being gathered. He said a study is being performed to determine how many inmates in the last several years could have been diverted to a crisis intervention center.

He also said that a Jan. 23 letter to the editor in the Journal-World stating the county was considering adding 140 beds to the jail is “not true” and that he does not yet know how many extra beds will be needed.

There are essentially three ways the county could raise the money for the project, Weinaug said. It could hold a sales tax referendum, raise property taxes or create a public building commission to issue bonds.

Weinaug said if the county wants to keep the option of a sales tax election alive it must have a bill introduced during the current legislative session.

The bill language that the county has in mind would allow it to ask voters to improve a 0.5 percent sales tax increase for the “construction or remodeling of a courthouse, jail, law enforcement center facility or other county administrative facility, specifically including mental health and the operation thereof.”

With juveniles in mind, the commission voted to add “detention centers” into the language.

All three commissioners were careful to note that they do not necessarily favor the sales tax strategy and only voted in favor of the item to keep the option alive. Weinaug said in December he anticipates a public building commission will be the chosen course.

“I want to have every arrow we can have in our quiver to address it financially,” Commissioner Jim Flory said.

The county will determine a funding strategy and exactly how large the project would be over the next six months. Over that time, officials have said, the county plans to host about a half-dozen open house meetings for the public to submit feedback on the project.