Building jail expansion in phases would take 16 years, $6M to $8M a year, county says

Douglas County Jail

Douglas County would have to spend between $6.5 million and $8 million annually for 16 years to build a proposed jail expansion in phases should this spring’s half-cent sales tax referendum fail, County Administrator Craig Weinaug estimates.

Those figures are in a memo Weinaug provided the Douglas County Commission in advance of its Wednesday meeting. Commissioners will meet twice Wednesday, once at 4 p.m. to consider their regular agenda and again at 6 p.m. to receive Weinaug’s report on what will happen if voters choose not to authorize the additional sales tax authority.

The sales tax, if approved, would raise an estimated $9.8 million a year, 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.

Weinaug’s memo explores the annual costs of building the jail in phases. He said the consequences needed to be considered because the County Commission “has been very clear in stating that the jail needs are a legal and moral obligation that the county must provide, even if the voters fail to approve the sales tax initiative on May 15.”

The memo doesn’t make assumptions about how the proposed design would be broken into phases or what parts of the project would be built first.

To expand the jail in phases, Weinaug said the county would have to:

• Annually set aside $4.5 million to $6 million for jail construction.

• Lease temporary incarceration facilities for 50 inmates at a cost of $620,000 annually. It would cost another $905,000 a year to hire the additional correctional officers needed to oversee the temporary cells. Weinaug said the lease cost would increase over time because of inflation and the need to lease more cells.

• Continue to place some inmates out of county at a cost of $400,000 a year. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office currently spends $1.1 million to house inmates in other counties.

• Set aside $50,000 annually for higher utility bills and another $100,000 for miscellaneous costs.

Inflation would increase the construction cost of the jail expansion if it was done in phases, but that added cost from inflation was about equal to the interest payments on a 20-year bond that would finance the jail’s construction if the referendum were to pass, Weinaug wrote.

The county’s total cost to house inmates would be higher if the jail were constructed in phases because of the lease payments on the temporary cell units and the need for out-of-county placements, Weinaug said.

The county could raise property taxes — without voter approval — to pay for some of the expenses, such as lease payments on temporary cell units, additional operating costs, and the costs associated with housing inmates out of county. However, the county could not increase property taxes — absent approval from voters — to pay for the construction costs related to expanding the jail. When it comes to construction costs, the county would have to keep property tax increases within the state-imposed property tax lid, which generally caps how much of an increase in property tax revenue cities and counties can levy at the rate of inflation unless they get voter approval.

The money set aside for the phased jail construction “would have to be derived from cuts to the non-exempt portions of the county budget,” Weinaug wrote. The memo does not recommend any specific offsetting budget cuts. Weinaug’s memo also does not address any ways that the county could generate money to pay for the jail expansion without cutting services.

When pressed by the Journal-World last week, county officials did confirm that the county’s existing budget has $4.2 million of property tax money that funds mental health services. Those services would be eligible to be funded by a mental health sales tax, which would effectively free up $4.2 million in property tax money that could be spent on the jail expansion. However, county commissioners would have to decide whether to put another sales tax initiative before voters if the current sales tax proposal is rejected this spring. The current ballot question seeks authorization to spend tax dollars on mental health and jail expansion and to allow the county to issue debt for the jail.

It has been unclear whether county commissioners would support a mental health-only sales tax if the current initiative fails. Instead, commissioners have focused on their desire to see the current sales tax question approved.

Weinaug emphasized that in his latest report too. Expanding the jail in phases would not allow the county to address in a timely manner the needs of inmates with mental illness, the lack of space for female inmates or the decreased effectiveness of the jail’s re-entry program, Weinaug wrote.

“The human cost of failing to meet these needs is not measurable in dollars,” Weinaug wrote.

The Douglas County Commission meets Wednesday at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St. To view the commission’s complete agenda, visit