County commissioners approve 2017 budget, defend land swap with Lawrence school district

At Wednesday’s Douglas County Commission meeting, there was more public comment about a couple of consent agenda items than there was during a public hearing on the county’s 2017 budget.

The $83.7 million 2017 budget, which commissioners hashed out in three work sessions last month, was approved unanimously, with no public comment. Among its new spending measures are $1.27 million to create an ambulance service in Eudora, more than $400,000 to offset state funding cuts and $273,179 for five additional Douglas County Jail corrections officers for the overcrowded facility.

The budget raises the property tax levy to 44.098 mills, a 3-mill increase from the current year.

A mill raises $1 of revenue for every $1,000 of assessed valuation. At 44.098 mills, the county’s share of property taxes on $100,000 of appraised value on a residential home would be $507.

After the budget was approved, Commissioner Jim Flory made the meeting’s only statement on it.

“We positioned ourselves well, I think, in providing a safety net, which as I have expressed before I am frustrated we have to provide,” he said. “But we do, we will and we have.”

Earlier in the meeting, however, at the request of county resident Matthew Conklin, two items were pulled from the consent agenda. The items concerned an exchange of property between the county and the Lawrence school district and a proposed contract with a consulting firm to study the county’s need for a public information officer.

The first measure authorized the exchange of the old county public works yard at 711 E. 23rd St. for the current Lawrence school district maintenance yard at 146 Maine St. The negotiated contract also requires the school district to pay the county $500,000 for the old public works yard.

The county sought the exchange with the goal of constructing the proposed mental health crisis intervention center on part of the school district’s maintenance yard. The property is north of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and west of property Bert Nash owns on Second Street.

Conklin said his objection to the County Commission’s consideration of the exchange was the same one that he and others raised in June regarding the awarding of a contract to Treanor Architects to do additional work on the proposed expansion of the Douglas County Jail. It was, Conklin said, another instance of “getting the cart before the horse.”

In dismissing the objection, Commissioner Jim Flory cited comments he made when the exchange was discussed last month. As a member of the county team who negotiated the exchange, one of his interests was that the new county property serve a public need even if county voters didn’t approve a referendum providing financing for the county jail expansion and construction of a crisis intervention center.

“We did not go into this without consideration of what could be done there if the voting public did not approve the jail expansion or the crisis intervention center,” he said. “That’s been thoroughly considered.”

Commissioner Mike Gaughan and County Administrator Craig Weinaug added that the exchange had been before the public for some time. It was assumed the property would be available during the public architectural design workshops on the crisis intervention center that started in February, and the exchange was discussed at a County Commission meeting last month, they said.

With that, commissioners approved the exchange 3-0. Weinaug said the Lawrence school board will consider the contract later this month. The Lawrence City Council must also approve the rezoning for the 23rd Street property for the district’s planned uses, he said

The $500,000 the county is to receive in the exchange would be placed in its capital improvement project fund, Weinaug said. The county would not receive the money until next year, he said.

As for the second item, Conklin and Jesse Brinson Jr., who last week filed as an independent candidate for the 2nd District County Commission seat, wondered what AJW Consulting, of Kansas City, Mo., would provide for the $5,000 a month it would receive from the county for at least six months.

Gaughan said the contract was a way of testing whether his call for a county public information officer was justified. As explained in a memo to commissioners, the contract would require AJW to train staff in and help with such things as media, crisis, internal and external communications. The firm would also evaluate the need for a county-funded public information officer.

That measure, too, was approved 3-0.