At forum, Douglas County commissioner explains ‘what if’ option if sales tax referendum fails

photo by: Mike Yoder

Douglas County Jail

Correction: The following article has been corrected to report that it was not immediately clear why the opposition groups did not participate in the forum.

At a forum Sunday about the sales tax referendum that would fund a county jail expansion and behavioral health campus, Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman explained the “what if” option, should county voters reject the ballot question.

The forum at Lawrence City Hall drew about 20 people, two days before the Douglas County Clerk’s Office sends about 63,000 mail-in ballots to registered county voters on Tuesday. The county is asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax, which would provide an estimated $9.8 million annually to fund construction of a $44 million jail expansion, an $11 million behavioral health campus and $5.1 million in additional behavioral health services. It would also provide $1 million of the $6 million needed to operate the larger jail.

It was explained at the meeting, sponsored by the Voter Education Coalition, that members of two groups opposing the referendum — Kansas Appleseed and Justice Matters — declined an invitation to participate in the forum. They would have been given 10 minutes to explain their opposition after county officials gave an opening 20-minute “educational” background presentation on the sales tax, jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives.

It wasn’t immediately clear why the opposition groups chose not to participate in the forum. Several representatives of the group did not respond to a request for comment.

In her opening comments, Thellman addressed the County Commission’s five-year review of jail overcrowding and behavioral health needs before it chose to advance the ballot question. Bunting spoke on the overcrowding, which has the county housing 50 to 80 inmates daily in the jails of other counties, and the current risks associated with the necessary mixing of minimum-, medium- and maximum-security inmates.

In response to a question from the audience that followed her presentation, Thellman expanded on what the County Commission would do if voters don’t approve the sales tax.

The current County Commission is committed to improving conditions at the jail for the safety of inmates and staff, and to the humane treatment of inmates, Thellman said. If the referendum fails, County Commissioners would complete a 15- to 16-year phased expansion of the jail, with each incremental upgrade costing about $4.5 million, she said. If the referendum fails, the County Commission would work with the sheriff’s office and Treanor Architects to develop a plan about how to phase in the upgrades.

In response to a question, Thellman said the County Commission would look to save the money in more ways than cutting social services.

“The idea we could cut social services has to be balanced by the fact we would look through our entire budget to see where we could find savings,” she said. “Some of that would come through the capital improvement plan, economic development and other sources, including social services. Some of it would be discretionary and some not.”

Because the jail expansion would be done on a cash basis without debt financing, no future countywide vote would be required, Thellman said.

In answer to another question, Thellman said the sales tax only will provide $1 million of the $6 million in additional operational costs associated with the jail expansion if the sales tax is approved. Property tax revenue would provide the remaining $5 million, which would require about a 3.8 mill levy increase, using the county’s current valuation numbers. However, the entire $6 million wouldn’t be needed until the expansion was completed and the jail’s population grew to its 20-year projected estimate, she said.

The benefit of funding the jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives through a sales tax was that it allowed the county to expand the tax base beyond county residents by taking advantage of purchases out-of-county residents make in local stores, Thellman said.

“The reason that made sense to us is because we have within our jail about 30 percent of inmates who are from other counties,” she said.

About 60 percent of the sales tax revenue would fund the behavioral health campus and additional mental health and substance abuse services, Thellman said. In addition to a sobering room, substance abuse detoxification treatment center and crisis recovery unit in the crisis center, the campus in the 1000 block of West Second Street would have a transitional group home and apartments reserved for those with behavioral health issues, she said.

Additional services would include a 24-hour crisis line and suicide prevention initiative in partnership with Headquarters Inc., a countywide mobile behavioral health crisis response team, an opioid crisis summit and the expansion of the WRAP mental health services available in the Lawrence school district, which the county subsidizes, to the Baldwin City and Eudora school districts, Thellman said.