County Commission declines to make grant application because of sales tax referendum uncertainty

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

Douglas County commissioners reluctantly declined Wednesday a staff request to apply for a grant that would help pay for a viewing site and shelter at Wells Overlook Park because of uncertainty about the fate of the half-cent sale tax referendum before voters this spring.

Keith Browning, county public works director, said the county developed plans for an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant viewing platform about 30 feet north of the Wells Overlook tower.

The project was not on the county’s capital improvement list, but it was developed after Ken Lassman, a member of the family who donated the Wells Overlook property on County Route 458 just east of U.S. Highway 59 to the county, expressed interest in improving viewing opportunities at the site for those with mobility limitations. The plan would require clearing a half-acre of trees to provide a view from the platform. The plan also would construct an accessible picnic shelter south of the Wells Overlook parking lot.

Browning estimated the project would cost $144,800. He proposed the county apply for a federal grant the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism administers. If approved, the grant would reimburse the county half its costs once the project was finished.

Browning requested the County Commission’s approval to apply for the grant by its April 15 deadline. Applying would commit the county to going forward with the project if the KDWPT were to approve the grant, he said.

Commissioners, however, were not ready to make that commitment, referring to previous statements about how they would have to consider cuts to all discretionary spending to pay for a phased expansion of the county jail if voters defeat the referendum to authorize a half-cent sales tax. The sales tax would provide $44 million for the jail expansion and $11 million for a behavioral health campus.

“Under normal circumstances, I would be all for it,” Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said. “I think the message we gave the community was to hold the line on all discretionary spending if the referendum fails.”

Commissioners instructed Browning to put the project on the 2019 capital improvement list so that it could be considered during this summer’s 2019 budget discussions once the referendum’s results had come in. The county could apply for the grant next year, Browning said.

In other business, an update on the multiagency integrated behavioral health response team that had been scheduled for the meeting was tabled for April 11 because of a scheduling conflict of one of the presenters.