County commissioners agree on hiring 3 new deputies, $1.98M in behavioral health initiatives and new judge

The Douglas County commission meets in the historic courtroom on the second floor of the old county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

The Douglas County Commission on Wednesday ended three days of hearings on the proposed 2018 budget without a final budget but with an agreement to create three new deputy sheriff positions, to fund $1.98 million in behavioral health initiatives and to hire an additional judge.

Although commissioners didn’t resolve all their budget questions, they did agree they could move forward without exceeding the county’s tax lid limit of 1.761 mills for nonexempt spending. The state’s tax lid law requires local governments to get voter approval to increase mill levies for nonexempt spending beyond the increase in the consumer price index and assessed valuation from new growth. Commissioners are required to publish an intent to have a referendum to exceed the tax lid by July 1.

The final budget, however, could exceed the 1.761-mill tax lid limit through additional spending that the state law exempts from the lid for public safety and bonded debt. Commissioners did agreed to add $211,133 in such spending Wednesday with a decision to create three new Douglas County sheriff deputy positions and $334,849 in new staffing for the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office. The three new deputies were not recommended in the budget that County Administrator Craig Weinaug presented to commissioners last week.

“This is the direction the Legislature wants us to take,” Commission Chair Mike Gaughan said. “When we add people to public safety functions, there’s no questions asked.”

Commissioners also agreed to fund all $1.98 million in behavioral health initiatives in the proposed budget and to fund a second pro tem judge for Douglas County District Court for $130,000. The behavioral health spending also reflected the Legislature’s direction, because it has indicated that responsibility was more appropriately addressed at the local level, Gaughan said.

“I think this is the opportunity under the tax lid to address some of these community issues,” he said. “We have the opportunity to begin to invest in the services we will need in the crisis center and in the area of behavioral health.”

Consensus on those spending priorities was achieved through compromise. Commissioner Michelle Derusseau started the day supporting the hiring of all five deputies that Sheriff Ken McGovern requested and calling for cuts to the $400,000 included in the budget to help Lawrence Memorial Hospital build a behavioral health stabilization unit. She also asked for cuts to the $397,000 in funding requested to start creating a multi-agency support team for those with severe mental illness.

Gaughan and Commissioner Nancy Thellman were able to gain Derusseau’s support to fully fund the multi-agency support team by agreeing to fund three of the deputies. Further persuasion on the importance of the emerging partnership with LMH in behavioral health moved Derusseau to support the $400,000 for the hospital’s stabilization unit.

Karen Shumate, LMH chief operating officer, told commissioners Monday that the 1,400 square-foot unit would open in January 2018 with one private room and a relaxation bay accommodating seven patients. It would complement the three emergency ward behavioral health rooms for those needing acute care, she said.

Derusseau said she was concerned about Shumate’s Monday comment that the stabilization unit could be “repurposed” when the county and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center opened the planned mental health crisis intervention center.

In making the case for the full $400,000, Gaughan, Thellman, Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky and Bob Tryanski, who is the county director of behavioral health projects, said the county contribution was the start of a partnership with LMH that would continue when the county opened the crisis intervention center. The hospital would provide support to the crisis center for such things as food service, laundry and radiology, they said.

Tryanski and Thellman said it was not their understanding that the hospital would close the stabilization center with the opening of the mental health crisis intervention center.

Tryanski said LMH had an important place now in behavioral health care because 97 percent of those LMH sees in its emergency room for mental health issues also had physical health problems. The hospital’s three emergency room beds and the new stabilization unit would remain the appropriate placement for patients with medical conditions even when the mental health crisis center opened, he said.

Gaughan and Thellman did agree that LMH should share any savings it realized in construction of the stabilization unit, which Shumate estimated Monday would cost $1.2 million. Derusseau’s support was also earned with the understanding the $400,000 was a one-time contribution and the county would not be asked to help fund the stabilization center’s future operational costs.

Gaughan said it could take another two weeks to complete the budget. One delay is a number of questions involving the city of Lawrence. Those include assessments, which the county received late Tuesday afternoon from the city, for improvements on properties that the county owns in East Hills Business Park. Commissioners also want clarity on the city’s position on funding a number of past collaborative efforts involving the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center, the Lawrence-Douglas Housing Authority New Horizons Transitional program, the Bioscience and Technology Center and the Lawrence Community Shelter. Those questions stemmed from the view of City Manager Tom Markus that city taxpayers are taxed double in city/county spending collaborations.

Weinaug said he would meet Thursday with Markus to get answers to the funding questions. Commissioners will next discuss the budget at their regular meeting at 4 p.m. July 5.