Douglas County will face tough choices on jail expansion if tax referendum fails, official says

Douglas County Jail

If Douglas County voters were to reject a half-cent sales tax increase, leaders would not only have to spend 16 years expanding the county jail in phases, but would be faced with the difficult decision of what part of the project to build first.

That was the takeaway from Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug’s report to the County Commission on Wednesday. Weinaug said if the county did not have the additional sales tax revenue necessary to build the proposed $44 million jail expansion all at once, it would cost between $6.5 million and $8 million annually over 16 years to complete the proposed $44 million jail expansion in phases.

His report didn’t, however, propose an order in which the different components of the jail design would be built.

Weinaug said the commission chose to ask voters to fund the jail expansion because of the need to address multiple issues at the jail, including the lack of a therapeutic environment for inmates with mental illness; an overflowing population of female inmates; and the need to house low-level offenders in out-of-county jails, where they couldn’t be enrolled in county programs designed to help them succeed once their incarceration ends. Expanding the jail in phases would mean the county would have to make tough decisions about what to address first, he said.

“When I called around, different people had different ideas of what the priority need is,” Weinaug said. “It would be very, very hard to decide which of those critical needs should be the priority over the other ones. That’s why we made the decision we did — to go forward with the referendum.”

If voters approve the sales tax increase in this spring’s referendum, it would raise an estimated $9.8 million a year, which would be used for the jail expansion and an $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.

But should the referendum fail, commissioners would have to annually put aside property tax revenue to fund the jail expansion, Weinaug said. His report to commissioners said the phased-in expansion would require:

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

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

• Continuing 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.

• And leasing temporary incarceration facilities for 50 inmates at a cost of $620,000 a year. It would cost another $905,000 a year to hire the 16 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.

Undersheriff Gary Bunting said inmates in the temporary units would be confined 23 hours a day, and they would not have the open common space inmates now enjoy.

The housing conditions in temporary units and the failure to address all of the jail’s issues at once made a phased-in approach a bad alternative to expanding the jail using sales tax, Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said.

“Doing this for 16 years doesn’t sound too temporary to me,” she said. “The thought of doing this for 16 years is incomprehensible. It’s not a logical solution to an immediate need. We can get the entire project in three years and get almost all our inmates back in the county.”

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, Commissioner Michelle Derusseau asked Weinaug to do more research into leasing temporary jail units. She said the county needed to consider leasing temporary units even if the referendum were to pass, because it would be three years before the extra space in the jail was available.

Although commissioners scheduled Wednesday’s discussion at the 6 p.m. time slot reserved for issues expected to garner public comment, nobody at the meeting voiced opposition to the jail expansion, and no representatives of two advocacy groups opposed to the project — Justice Matters and Kansas Appleseed — attended the meeting. Steve Lewis, a retired Douglas County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant, spoke in favor of the half-cent sales tax during the public comment period, saying its passage would give Douglas County the best jail and mental health facilities in the state.