County says Justice Matters using wrong law to try to force mental health vote; group plans to start petition drive on Saturday

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.

As voters get ready to decide a contentious countywide sales tax proposal, there’s a new battle brewing between the Douglas County Commission and the opposition group Justice Matters.

That local advocacy group has been urging people to vote against the proposed half-cent sales tax that would fund a $44 million jail expansion and $11 million in mental health projects. Instead, Justice Matters has said it will use a state law to force the county to put a property tax provision on a future ballot that would fund only the mental health part of the county’s plan.

Friday afternoon, county leaders said they likely won’t be forced to do any such thing.

County officials announced that the county counselor has reviewed the state law Justice Matters intends to use, and he has determined it does not require the county to put a property tax referendum on any future ballot. Previously, there was a thought that if Justice Matters submitted a properly worded petition that garnered at least 4,000 signatures from eligible Douglas County voters, the county would be forced to hold such an election.

County Administrator Craig Weinaug on Friday said that after county counselor John Bullock had more time to review the statute in question, he determined Justice Matters is likely misinterpreting the law.

In response, a Justice Matters leader said the group is not misinterpreting the law, and it will start its petition drive Saturday evening at an event that is expected to draw more than 1,200 people.

Brent Hoffman, a member of Justice Matters’ executive committee, said if the county rejects the group’s petition, Justice Matters “will have recourse.”

“The county can do what they want,” Hoffman said. “If they want to reject it, that is their prerogative.”

Hoffman said Justice Matters has hired an attorney to advise the group on the law; however, he said he wasn’t ready to identify the attorney publicly.

For their part, county officials said they are not looking for a battle, but rather felt obligated to tell the group sooner rather than later that it is relying on the wrong law.

“We are responding to it as quickly as we could once the county counselor verified the concern had significant legal merit,” Weinaug said.

As for the legal concern the county has, Weinaug explained that the county counselor believes the law in question — K.S.A. 19-117 — only allows for referendums on tax issues that haven’t already been contemplated by the Kansas Legislature. The Kansas Legislature already has devised a process for how counties can levy property taxes. As such, the law doesn’t allow for a referendum that would force the county to put a property tax increase proposal on the ballot.

“I have been unable to conclude that K.S.A. 19-117 authorizes a referendum election on the question as stated,” Bullock wrote in a letter to Justice Matters leadership.

Hoffman said Justice Matters was going to rely on the counsel from its own attorney. That attorney has helped the group craft new petition language. That language eventually will have to be submitted to the county counselor to have its legal form approved. However, Justice Matters has been advised it can start circulating the petition prior to that approval, and it intends to do so at Saturday night’s big event at the Lied Center.

Hoffman, though, did confirm that the new petition language does have a major change. It would not cause the county to start collecting the new property taxes until January of 2020. That means the county could not start funding the new mental health projects until 2020. Justice Matters’ previous proposal called for the tax to be collected in 2019, but it became apparent that would not be possible due to the timing of when property tax bills are sent to residents.

The change in timing could be a significant issue for some voters. Mental health advocates who vote against the sales tax because they don’t want the jail expansion would have to wait until 2020 to start seeing new mental health programs emerge. Under the county’s sales tax proposal, the mental health funding would be available in 2019.

Hoffman said that is unfortunate, but it doesn’t have to be the reality.

“With a cooperative county commission, it would not have to wait until 2020,” Hoffman said. “They have the power to put this on the ballot by itself. I’m just hoping they do the right thing. We hope we don’t have to play this petition thing out as far as we are prepared to take it.”