Jail referendum fact check: A look at what both sides aren’t saying about the heated campaign

photo by: Mike Yoder

Douglas County Jail

The ballots have arrived in the mailboxes of registered Douglas County voters. At stake is a new half-cent sales tax that would fund a $44 million jail expansion, an $11 million mental health campus and $5.1 million in additional behavioral health services.

Passionate supporters and foes of the proposal may have already mailed their ballots, but others may be doing a little research ahead of the noon May 15 deadline to return ballots to the Douglas County Clerk’s Office. That research may take them to the websites on which the county and the organized opposition have posted information or views.

A Journal-World review of those sites finds the content doesn’t always tell the whole story and details aren’t included that might weaken positions. What follows is a look at some of those omitted details.

Douglas County

Another sales tax vote is a possibility. Although it’s not mentioned anywhere in the information Douglas County has released on the referendum — the website is douglascountyks.org — the county still will have the right to advance another ballot question asking for a half-cent sales tax for the jail, if the referendum fails. Furthermore, the county could choose to put a half-cent sales tax question on the ballot that would fund just mental and behavioral health services.

Supporters of the current sales tax proposal don’t have much political motivation to talk about how a revised sales tax proposal could be presented to voters if this one fails. Supporters, obviously, want to see the current sales tax plan approved.

But when asked this week about the possibility of a second sales tax ballot, Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said that was a “conversation we’ll have to have,” if the current referendum fails.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug also confirmed that the county would still have the legal authority to put another sales tax question on the ballot, if the current proposal fails. At the county’s request, the Legislature in 2015 amended Kansas Statute 12-187 so that Douglas County could advance a referendum asking for authority to approve a half-cent sales tax to fund jail construction and operations, mental health facilities and services and improvements to the Douglas County Courthouse. The authority remains, unless the Legislature takes a specific action to remove the authority.

The county doesn’t have to “shelve plans” to build a mental health crisis center if the referendum fails. As part of the frequently asked questions section of the county’s website, the county uses such language to describe what would happen if the referendum fails.

“If the ballot measure fails, the county will have to find an alternative way to finance the jail expansion and any plans for building a crisis center and supporting greater mental health and substance use disorder services will be shelved. Alternative financing for the jail could include a different revenue source such as a property tax or drastically cutting other services to pay-as-you-go for construction costs or, most likely, a combination of both.”

The state law would allow the county to put a sales tax question on the ballot that would fund only mental health services and projects. There are elections already scheduled for August and November that theoretically could include a sales tax question.

If voters approved a mental health only sales tax, the estimated $9.8 million it would annually produce could fund the behavioral health campus and its associated added services, as well as the about $4 million in property tax-supported behavioral health spending currently built into the county budget.

If that $4 million in property tax-supported behavioral health spending was transferred to a new sales tax-supported fund, the county theoretically could use the freed-up property tax dollars to fund a phased-expansion of the jail.

The current County Commission can’t commit a future county commission to undertake a jail expansion. There is no reason to doubt the resolve of the current county commissioners to move ahead with a jail expansion if voters reject the sales tax. All three have said they’ll do so. But absent a public vote, the county can’t issue debt to build the jail. The county would be required to do the jail expansion with cash on hand or cash it can generate through increased property taxes. However, the state’s debt lid law limits how much the county can raise property taxes without having an election.

That has left the county contemplating expanding the jail in phases using cash on hand. In February, Weinaug presented a plan that would raise $4.5 million to $6 million a year for 16 years to fund jail expansion. The plan likely would involve painful spending cuts. During that 16-year period, there would be approximately eight county commission elections, where presumably the jail and the spending cuts would be hot campaign topics. Any one of those new commissions could decide not to proceed with the jail election. The first of those elections is set for November, when one of the three seats is up for election.

Jail No

Opponents of the referendum have made their objections to the measure available to the public on the website jailno.org.

The long-term average of minorities incarcerated in the Douglas County Jail may be different from what opponents have advertised. Both sides of the jail expansion debate agree that blacks and Native Americans are incarcerated at a rate disproportionate to their percentage of the county’s population. Blacks account for 4.6 percent and Native Americans 2.7 percent of county residents.

The Jail No’s website states that 22.4 percent of the jail’s population is black and 4.6 percent is Native American. You have to read the website’s fine print, though, to learn that those numbers come from a 10-day snapshot of the jail’s population between April 2017 to February 2018. Elsewhere on the website, it’s stated that 18 percent of the jail’s population is black and that 7.1 percent is Native American.

Those numbers are at odds with the averages listed in the county-produced annual jail reports. However, in fairness to Justice Matters, which manages the Jail No website, the 2017 annual report has not been published, so annual demographic numbers for last year are not publicly available.

Undersheriff Gary Bunting did provide 2017 numbers to the Journal-World. Those numbers showed nearly 18.9 percent of the 5,374 people booked into the county jail in 2017 were black and 6.5 percent were Native American. Both those percentages increased from the 2016 numbers when 15.3 percent of the population was black and 5.4 percent was Native American.

A majority of Iowa City voters have voted to expand the community’s jail — twice. The Jail No website points to Johnson County, Iowa — home to Iowa City — as a model for reducing jail population. The county reduced its jail population significantly after voters rejected ballot questions that would have expanded the county jail.

It is correct that bond issues to expand the jail in Iowa City have failed three times. However, at least two of the bond issues included more than just jail expansion. They also included county courthouse improvements. It also is worth noting that a majority of voters actually approved of the bond issuance; however, the issue failed because Iowa law requires a 60 percent voter approval rate for capital projects. ‘Yes’ votes totaled 56 percent in 2012 and 54 percent in 2013, according to an official in the Johnson County Recorder’s Office.

Many of the inmates in the Douglas County Jail awaiting trial are in jail not simply waiting for their trials to begin, but are also serving a sentence for a pre-existing conviction. The Jail No website states there are 140 to 150 pretrial inmates in the county jail each night.

Daily snapshots of the county’s jail population on Feb. 2 and March 4 show those numbers are true only if you count inmates who are both waiting for a trial while also serving a jail sentence. Of the 246 inmates in custody Feb. 2, there were 97 inmates there awaiting trial. Another 51 were in jail awaiting trial and serving time on a sentence. Of the 214 in jail March 4, 85 inmates were awaiting trial and another 36 were awaiting trial and serving time on a sentence.