Jail expansion, crisis center would require public vote on new taxes, officials say

Douglas County Jail

At a work session Wednesday, Douglas County commissioners were told that expanding the Douglas County Jail and building a mental health crisis intervention center would require voters to approve extra tax revenue.

County Administrator Craig Weinaug said the county simply didn’t have any other means of moving the projects forward.

One option for a new revenue source would be a sales tax. In 2015, the Kansas Legislature authorized the county to ask voters to approve either a quarter-cent or half-cent sales tax for jail or mental health needs, but commissioners have never put the tax before voters, Weinaug said. A quarter-cent tax would provide $4.86 million annually, and a half-cent tax would provide $9.72 million.

But officials said it was unlikely the sales tax would provide enough revenue to finance the jail expansion and crisis center and pay their annual operating costs. Figures that Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky shared with commissioners showed the annual debt payment on a $38 million jail expansion would be between $2.41 million and $2.53 million. She estimated the expanded jail would require 89 additional employees and cost $5.3 million more to operate annually despite the fact that the county would no longer have to spend $1.3 million a year to house inmates in other counties.

Plinsky didn’t provide costs associated with the crisis intervention center, because the county does not have a design for the crisis intervention center or an estimate of its construction cost. The design process can’t go forward without a clearer picture of what behavioral health programs are needed at the center, Plinsky said.

It is possible the $9.72 million from a voter-approved half-cent sales tax could provide enough revenue to cover the costs of the jail’s and crisis center’s annual debt payments and the crisis center’s annual operating cost. That would allow the county to pay the jail’s annual operating cost with a mill levy appropriation. Weinaug said as a public safety expenditure, the jail’s operating cost would be exempt from the state’s tax lid measure, which limits annual property tax spending increases to the rate of inflation without voter approval.

The other revenue option available to the county for the projects is to increase property tax, which could be used in combination with a sales tax. Due to the tax lid legislation and a state statute requiring counties to get voter approval for any general obligation bonds of more than $300,000, a public vote would be needed if commissioners decided to use additional property taxes to finance construction of either project or the crisis center’s annual programming costs, Plinsky said.

Commissioners have the option of officially empowering a public building commission formed in 2015. A PBC can legally issue debt of $300,000 or more and is also not subject to a state statute that limits the county’s total debt to $42 million, or 3 percent of its total assessed valuation, Plinsky said. If commissioners chose that option for the jail expansion or crisis center, the county would enter into a lease-to-buy arrangement with the PBC until the debt was paid, she said.

The use of a PBC would not remove the need for public votes on the projects, because a PBC would have no authority to levy the taxes that would pay for the projects, Plinsky said. Raising that new revenue would still require voters to approve a sales tax or added mill levy authority, she said.