Douglas County legal counselor finds proposed Justice Matters petition legally invalid, but group says it can be fixed

photo by: Elvyn Jones

Justice Matters co-chairman Ted Mosher speaks from a lectern in front of the Douglas County Courthouse as he and other activists kick off their campaign against the proposed expansion of the Douglas County Jail on Saturday, March 3, 2018.

Justice Matters does not currently have a valid petition that could place a new mental health plan on the November ballot, Douglas County counselor John Bullock told the group Monday after a review of the proposed language, but the group maintains that the flaws can be readily fixed.

On April 9, Justice Matters presented a proposed petition to Douglas County that included the language for a ballot question raising property taxes by 3.5 mills “for the purpose of constructing or refurbishing and equipping a building to serve as a mental health crisis center, and paying the operating and support services expenses thereof.”

Justice Matters leaders said the proposal was an alternative to the referendum the county is putting before voters this month for an additional half-cent of sales tax authority, which would raise an estimated $9.8 million annually to fund the $44 million expansion of the county jail and $11 million behavioral health campus.

It was the goal of Justice Matters to launch the petition April 21 and get a ballot question on the property tax on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Bullock reviewed and responded to the proposed petition as Kansas statute requires. He found that the petition, as presented, contained passages that were “misleading, vague or ambiguous.” He also found it contained formatting and punctuation errors. Passages Bullock cited as problematic included:

• The petition’s statement that the referendum would be on the Nov. 6 general election ballot was misleading and confusing.

The County Commission would have to schedule a referendum within 90 days of receiving a valid petition. It’s possible a referendum could be scheduled for the general election, but that is dependent on state and federal election laws, as well as logistical concerns, Bullock wrote. The Douglas County Clerk’s Office would have to have a valid petition before Aug. 24 to get on the Nov. 6 ballot.

• The petition’s call for the county to start collecting the additional 3.5 mills in property taxes on Jan. 1, 2019, should the referendum be approved.

That is not possible because the County Commission will approve the 2019 budget and mill levy in August, Bullock wrote. The soonest the added mill levy could be collected would be Jan. 1, 2020. Because of the state’s cash-basis law, the county could not start spending to build or staff a crisis center until it had revenue to do so.

• The petition statement that the added mill levy authority would sunset in 2028, but that following an outcome analysis it “will be presented for renewal to Douglas County voters during the 2028 general election.”

Bullock wrote that that is misleading because there is no state provision that allows referendum-approved property taxes to sunset. He also wrote that any 2028 referendum to reauthorize the mill levy authority would require another successful petition.

• The petition’s statement that under Kansas Statute 19-117(c), revenue from the 3.5 mills would be used for “the exclusive purpose” of constructing, refurbishing or equipping a mental health crisis center.

Bullock wrote that that statute doesn’t give the county the authority to pledge the added revenue only for the purposes the petition states. A different statute, Kansas Statue 79-1945, “could potentially” authorize revenue to be used for mental health programs but not for capital improvements, Bullock wrote.

• The petition doesn’t address how the 3.5 mill levy increase would relate to the state’s tax lid law, which forbids local jurisdictions from increasing property taxes more than the rate of inflation without approval of voters.

Bullock wrote that the response is his opinion and that Justice Matters is free to consult its attorney. He said the purpose of raising the issues about the petition was to be transparent about problems so that they could be addressed.

Brent Hoffman, Justice Matters executive committee member, said the group anticipated that there would be punctuation and formatting errors in the petition and that the county would find statutory concerns. The group’s leadership is attempting to schedule a meeting with Bullock to discuss the issues that Bullock raised.

Hoffman said he was confident that a valid petition could be crafted, which would give county voters a chance to vote to fund a mental health crisis center without a jail expansion.

“With the cooperation of the county, we think we can deliver a valid petition so that voters can make that decision in November,” he said. “We think that is what the community wants.”

Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said Justice Matters leadership was finding out that crafting ballot language and developing viable public policy solutions were difficult tasks because of the tax lid and other complications.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is how complicated this work is when you take into consideration state statute, budget calendars and community expectations,” she said, citing the tax lid’s constraints on local control. “That’s one reason the county, after lots of consideration, chose a sales tax referendum. It’s more flexible and not constrained by the tax lid.”