Jail, mental health initiatives help drive proposed tax increase in 2018 county budget

Douglas County Jail

Increased spending to improve mental health treatment and to reduce the jail population is a primary factor behind a tax increase that county staff is recommending in the 2018 Douglas County budget.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said the 1.761 mill levy increase in the budget that he presented Wednesday to county commissioners equaled what was available to the county under the state’s tax lid law. The law, which became effective this budget cycle, limits local governments from increasing mill levies beyond the annual increase of the consumer price index, except in exempt areas like public safety and bond payments. County voters would have to approve any nonexempt spending above that limit.

If approved as presented, the $92.69 million 2018 budget would require a 45.5 mill levy. That is a very big “if,” Weinaug said, noting that past commissions have made changes to all 25 budgets he presented.

Commissioners will start reviewing the 2018 budget with hearings Monday and Tuesday. Douglas County District Court Chief Judge Peggy Kittel is to appear first before commissioners at 8 a.m. Monday with her $130,000 request for an additional pro tem judge and support staff. The addition is seen as a way to speed up criminal trials and, therefore, decrease the time that felony defendants spend in the county jail.

Although pro tem judges can’t hear criminal cases beyond first appearances, the additional judge could give the court’s six district judges more time for criminal cases by freeing them of other responsibilities, Weinaug said. Speedier district court criminal trials should reduce the time that felony defendants spend in Douglas County Jail and help alleviate overcrowding. That should reduce the $1.3-$1.5 million that the county has earmarked in 2018 to place inmates in out-of-county jails, but Weinaug said he has not seen estimates of those savings. Those might be provided when Kittel and District Court Administrator Linda Koester-Vogelsang address commissioners on the request, he said.

More new spending totaling $1.98 million is included to fund initiatives that Weinaug and Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said were meant to start building the mental health infrastructure in the county. The new 2018 spending would be a start to providing the wrap-around services needed to complement the mental health crisis intervention center that the county plans to build in partnership with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, they said.

The most expensive of those initiatives in the recommended 2018 budget is a $922,800 proposal to hire two new psychiatrists for Bert Nash and two more for the Heartland Community Health Center. The proposed budget also would provide $400,000 to help Lawrence Memorial Hospital build a behavioral health crisis intervention center and would allocate $658,000 to start phasing in programs with community partners for substance abuse treatment and services for those with chronic mental illness.

The new spending on behavior health initiatives reflects the county’s review during the last year of needed services. Plinsky said officials discovered a “drastic” shortage of psychiatrists practicing in the county. The two psychiatrists hired for both Bert Nash and Heartland with the $922,800 would double the amount of clients those agencies could see for psychiatric counseling, she said. It is anticipated the county’s annual contribution for the positions would decrease in future years as the psychiatrists realized increased reimbursements from growing caseloads, she said.

The $400,000 for the LMH behavioral health crisis intervention center would help with the cost of building the 1,400 square-foot center, Weinaug said. As presently conceived the center, which should open near the start of 2018, would have two private crisis beds and eight relaxation, recliner bays and two exits, he said.

Other new behavioral health initiatives in the budget include:

• $397,000 to start building a multi-agency team designed to provide intensive wrap-around services for those with mental health issues who frequently visit the LMH emergency room or get arrested. It would be a start to building an “assertive community treatment team,” which would total 13 members when the county and Bert Nash open the proposed mental health crisis intervention center. Team members would include behavioral health professionals, but also those helping clients with such issues as employment and housing.

• $150,000 for DCCCA to arrange treatment of county residents in detox centers in Johnson and Shawnee counties. No residential detox centers exist in Douglas County. Weinaug said the program would give the county insight into how many detox beds would be needed in the future crisis intervention center.

• $110,000 for a pilot program of DCCCA and the Douglas County Jail’s re-entry program, which would find alternative placements for selected female inmates with substance abuse problems and line them up with services that would help them get sober and avoid future criminal activity.

Other new spending requests recommended for 2018 funding are:

• $966,708 for employee raises.

• $322,000 so that the district attorney’s office can process the video evidence it will receive in 2018 with the city of Lawrence’s decision to equip police officers with body cameras. The funding will hire an employee in the district attorney’s office to review and process the video evidence and pay for the software and equipment the position will need.

• $64,000 for a new case manager in the jail’s re-entry program, who will visit inmates in the program housed in out-of-county jails.

• $54,059 to provide temporary emergency shelter to the homeless during severe winter weather at the community shelter.

• $200,000 to help the Peaslee Technical Training Center with a coming mortgage balloon payment.

There are new spending requests from three county departments and four from community agencies, which are not recommended for funding in the proposed budget. Weinaug said the one commissioners probably would give serious consideration to funding was Sheriff Ken McGovern’s request for five new deputies at the annual cost of $351,888. Commissioners could approve hiring all or some of the deputies next year with no consequence to the tax lid because law enforcement expenditures are exempt from the lid’s spending limits.

Weinaug said requests from partnering agencies were rare this year because they understood the funding limitations of the tax lid and because commissioners funded a larger number of spending requests last year with the knowledge the tax lid would give the county less flexibility in future years.

Should county commissioners decide to exceed the tax lid limit, the county would have a deadline of July 1 to schedule a referendum asking voters for added taxing authority, Weinaug said. However, he doesn’t expect commissioners to increase spending more than the tax lid allows.

The County Commission will consider any changes to the proposed budget at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. At that time, commissioners could approve the 2018 budget for publication and schedule a hearing on the document, Weinaug said. If those decisions weren’t made at that time, Weinaug anticipated they would be in the following week.

The County Commission’s complete budget hearing schedule can be found at douglascountyks.org.

Proposed 2018 Douglas County Budget by the numbers

Proposed 2018 county mill levy, 45.853 mills

Actual 2017 county mill levy, 44.092 mills

Tax on a $175,000 home at 45.853 mills, $922.79

2018 total budget, $92.7 million

Amount of property tax support for 2018 budget, $85.4 million

Value of 1 mill of taxation for the county, $1.2 million

Total Douglas County assessed valuation, $1.313 billion