If sales tax referendum fails, Douglas County will have to cut services to expand jail, leaders say

Douglas County Jail

Douglas County will be forced to expand its jail in phases over a period of several years — and cut services elsewhere to pay for it — if an upcoming referendum on a half-cent sales tax to fund that project and several mental health initiatives fails, county leaders said Wednesday.

At the County Commission’s weekly meeting Wednesday, commissioner Michelle Derusseau restated the commission’s stance that the referendum would decide how the county funded the jail expansion, not whether the jail would be improved. Two Kansas statutes — K.S.A. 19-104, which states counties must provide a “suitable and sufficient” jail, and K.S.A. 19-1919, which requires all inmates be “treated with humanity, and in a manner which promotes their reform” — obligated the county to expand the jail, she said.

Commissioners agreed those statutory obligations would require the County Commission to use property taxes to fund the project should the referendum fail.

“It’s a pretty stark reality,” Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said.

County Administrator Craig Weinaug said Wednesday the use of property tax would force the County Commission to undertake the jail expansion in phases. Moreover, the commission would be unable to take on any debt to finance the expansion. That would require future commissions to cut county services and set aside money for multiple years to pay for incremental jail improvements.

Weinaug said he would provide more detail about the annual budget consequences of a failed referendum at an upcoming County Commission meeting.

If the added sales tax authority were approved, it would raise an estimated $9.8 million in annual revenue, which would be used for the $44 million jail expansion and the $11 million behavioral health campus. It would also provide $5.1 million a year for new behavioral health programming and $1 million of the $6.1 million needed per year to operate an expanded jail.

Online information on the referendum can now be accessed on the county’s website, douglascountyks.org. The new pages go into detail on the half-cent sales tax, the elements of the proposed behavioral health campus, programs the county has introduced to divert inmates from the county jail and schematic details of the jail expansion.

All three commissioners also said they would attend a public forum on the jail expansion the Douglas County Democratic Party will host at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.

Referendum ballots will be mailed to county voters April 25, and returned ballots will be counted May 15.

In other business, the County Commission:

• Approved a three-year $66,466 agreement with Johnson County to store data from Douglas County agencies and partnering health and social service providers on Johnson County’s computer system. Case managers in Douglas County then will be able to access the stored data through the My Resource Connection program Johnson County developed.

• Approved a 2018 tow service agreement that establishes the maximum rates tow companies can charge for dispatched calls. The agreement would maintain the current rates of $175 plus $4 per mile for vehicles under 12,000 pounds, and $250 plus $4 per mile for those weighing more.