Justice Matters to propose Douglas County Commission lease space for mental health crisis intervention center

The Douglas County Commission will hear a pitch Wednesday from Justice Matters that it rent and convert vacant space currently available for a mental health crisis intervention center, which the group claims could open this year.

A discussion with Justice Matters is on the County Commission’s agenda, although there is no information given on what the group and commissioners would discuss. However, an entry on Justice Matters’ website states the group will voice its concerns about a possible $30 million expansion of the Douglas County Jail and the construction of a $10 million mental health crisis intervention center. County voters would have to approve a bond referendum or referendums before either project could be built.

Justice Matters’ website states, “the County Commission will decide in the next few weeks when to go to the voter to ask for money” to finance the building of the two projects.

That assertion is untrue, said Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman. She welcomed the opportunity to clean up such misunderstandings with Justice Matters’ representatives.

“What’s on their website isn’t accurate,” she said. “I don’t know where that date was arrived at. I think we’ll have a chance to correct the record. Hopefully, they can come Wednesday and share their ideas in a public forum, which would be beneficial for them and the county.”

Rose Schmidt, a Justice Matters board member who sits on its mental health research committee, said her message to the County Commission would be that county residents now in mental health crisis — and their families — couldn’t wait the two or three years needed to pass a bond referendum to finance a crisis center and then build it.

The county entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in December 2015 to construct a crisis center north of Bert Nash’s headquarters near Second and Maine streets, on land the mental health service provider owns. The county has since enhanced the site through the acquisition of the adjacent Lawrence school district maintenance yard.

Schmidt said she would present an alternate proposal developed after Justice Matters representatives visited crisis centers in northeast Kansas and Wichita, she said. The plan would have the county open the center in currently available space. Justice Matters suggests as a location the now-empty building at 19th and Delaware streets that once housed Kansas Social and Rehabilitation Services, although she added that location wasn’t “set in stone.”

The county could lease the building for $140,000 a year and open a center 90 days after a lease was in place, Justice Matters’ website states.

Thellman said the crisis center was only part of the mental health continuum of care needed in the community. She and her fellow commission members were attempting to identify wraparound services needed to help crisis center patients succeed in the long term before making any decision.

Those services would cost money, and some of that expense would be addressed in a bond referendum, Thellman said. The county has had limited means to find that funding outside of bond dollars, especially in the context of the state’s new tax lid legislation, she said.

The County Commission also has put architectural plans for the crisis center on hold until the consequences of Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s planned mental health crisis stabilization center can be evaluated. The hospital proposes to open the stabilization center with four private rooms and a calming area this year near its emergency room.

As for the jail expansion, the Justice Matters’ statement repeats the group’s past position that the county is “rushing” to put a bond referendum to finance a building program in front of voters before fully studying all alternatives to incarceration. The statement specifically cites the work of Dr. Allen Beck, who is a contract consultant with the county through July for such projects as the pretrial release program.

At the March 7 Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, County Commission Chair Mike Gaughan refuted the Justice Matters’ timeline for a County Commission decision on any bond referendum. At the meeting, Gaughan said he wanted to see data on the pretrial release program before making a decision on the jail expansion.

The Douglas County Commission meets at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St. To view a complete agenda, visit douglascountyks.org.