Commissioners to renew discussion on jail expansion, mental health crisis center in coming weeks

Critical questions concering crisis center remain unanswered

Douglas County Jail

As Douglas County commissioners look to restart in the next three to four weeks discussion on the expansion of the Douglas County Jail and creation of a mental health crisis intervention center, the biggest unresolved issues involve the latter facility.

“There are more questions about the crisis center, actually,” said County Commissioner Michelle Derusseau, who joined the commission in January. “There are so many unknowns right now as far as what happens to people when they walk out the door and the services needed to keep them from falling back into crisis.”

Although there may be more questions involving the crisis center, there will be plenty of others for Derusseau and fellow Commissioners Mike Gaughan and Nancy Thellman to consider when they start discussions of the two facilities and any bond issue that would fund their construction. Those questions include the linkage of the two facilities on any bond referendum put before voters, the timing of such a referendum in a busy year for local tax questions and how ongoing initiatives could affect jail populations.

Nonetheless, the two incumbent commissioners share Derusseau’s assessment that much needs to be done before there is a fully developed plan for the crisis center. The county and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center have a 2015 memorandum of understanding to build the crisis center on property that Bert Nash owns north across Second Street from its headquarters. The site was expanded last year when the county acquired the adjacent Lawrence school district maintenance yard.

The County Commission’s coming discussion will attempt to answer questions regarding the right number and types of beds at a future crisis center, as well as the wraparound services needed if the center is to make meaningful changes for those who enter its doors.

“Any substantial increase in basic mental health services — pre-crisis, during crisis and post-crisis — will be expensive and require more people,” Thellman said. “I think what we are working on now is getting a sense of who our partners are. We have new conversations opening up with the hospital and potential collaborative partnering with all of this. I think we need to understand what everybody’s role will be.”

One development since the previous County Commission agreed last April not to move forward with a bond referendum for the two facilities in 2016 is Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s renewed interest in being a partner in the crisis center, commissioners and county staff say. Just what that will mean is still being worked out, but County Administrator Craig Weinaug and Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said LMH’s partnership was welcome because of its experience with providing emergency care to those in mental health crisis and its knowledge of insurance, Medicaid and Medicare billing.

Identifying service gaps is critical because the bond issue financing the construction of a crisis center also would be used to pay for the mental health staffing and operational costs needed to make the facility effective, Weinaug said. Among those needs are follow-up case management and housing that relocates clients from living conditions that contributed to their illness, he said.

The County Commission could not address those additional needs through the annual budget process because of the state-imposed tax lid that limits property tax increases to the inflation rate, Weinaug said.

Bond funding would not be required for added staff associated with a jail expansion because law enforcement needs are exempted from tax lid considerations. However, the county would want to share with taxpayers what increased operational costs from the expansion would mean to the annual budget, Weinaug said.

Another crisis center question to be resolved is the type and number of beds the center would need, Weinaug said. To get at that number, the county and its partners have consulted with other nearby jurisdictions with similar facilities: Johnson County, Kansas City, Kan., Valeo Mental Health Center in Topeka and Wichita.

“Different sources are giving us different rational input on the number of beds and what is a reasonable length of stay,” he said. “We are working our way through getting those issues resolved.”

The County Commission and its partners may not yet know all the support services and beds needed, but they have made progress in identifying the right questions to ask, Weinaug said.

“We know a whole lot more questions we know we have to have the answers to,” he said. “The concern is that some will see that as a delaying tactic. It’s not. Those questions have to be answered if we’re going to build (the crisis center) right.”

A year ago, the County Commission was in agreement that the jail expansion and crisis center would be put before voters in the same bond referendum. With Derusseau replacing former Commissioner Jim Flory, that decision could be reconsidered.

Whether funding for the two will be placed on the same ballot question will be determined in the coming discussions, commissioners said. It’s clear, however, that commissioners see both as community needs.

Commissioners agree they need to learn how a number of ongoing and planned criminal justice reforms — such as the behavioral health court, pretrial monitoring, electronic monitoring and expanded use of own-recognizance bonding — could potentially change the number of beds needed at the jail.

However, commissioners say those programs would not reduce the jail population enough to address the jail’s capacity issue, which had the county placing inmates in the jails of other counties at the cost of $1.29 million in 2016.

“I know there is progress being made, but we can see by the numbers that we are not going to knock them down by the 80 or 90 a day we need,” Derusseau said. “We need to decide what we need to do now and what we need to do for future growth, so we don’t have to turn around and do this again in a few years.”

There also remain the jail’s structural issues of limited space for female inmates, inappropriate space for its mentally ill population, lack of a pod to classify new inmates and overall capacity issues, Gaughan said. Those concerns continue to put stress on inmates and jail staff, he said.

Should county commissioners decide to move ahead with the county’s first bond referendum since the 1994 bond issue that built the jail, they will have to schedule it in a busy special election year. The Lawrence school district will put a $90 million bond referendum before voters in May. The city of Lawrence is looking to schedule a referendum during the November municipal/school board elections on extending the .55-cent infrastructure and transit sales tax. The Aug. 1 municipal/school board primary would be another opportunity for a referendum without the county scheduling and paying for a special election.

Gaughan said out of courtesy, the county would not want to schedule a referendum on the same date as another jurisdiction’s ballot question. It was also important that voters be able to focus on the important questions the county would put before them, he said.

“This is a crowded calendar year,” he said. “We need to find a time when we can let them stand alone so the public has the opportunity to evaluate our needs fairly.”