Due to misunderstanding, county now says jail expansion, mental health projects must be on same sales tax ballot

Douglas County Jail

The controversial topic of whether Douglas County voters should be presented with separate sales tax increase questions — one to fund a jail expansion and one to fund new mental health initiatives — has produced a surprise.

Douglas County leaders said Wednesday they now believe voters can’t be given the option of voting for a tax increase to support one project or the other. Instead, voters must be given a ballot that allows them to vote for either both or none.

The issue of two questions or one has been a hot topic, as several groups have argued voters should be able to vote for the mental health programs but not the jail expansion, or vice versa.

Douglas County leaders — who had refused to commit to such a two-question option — say such a scenario now appears to be off the table. The reason is that county officials — for the better part of two years — have misinterpreted a special law that was passed by the Kansas Legislature on behalf of Douglas County in 2015.

That year, the Legislature gave the county the authority to ask voters to approve an additional half-cent sales tax for the jail expansion, mental health initiatives and improvements to the Douglas County Courthouse. As recently as Dec. 13, county commissioners thought they could ask voters to approve the additional sales tax for the jail expansion at either a quarter- or half-cent increment.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said as county officials further researched funding options in recent weeks for the $44 million county jail and mental health crisis center, they discovered there was no quarter- or half-cent option. Weinaug said county officials and the county’s bond counsel, Joe Norton, of law firm Gilmore & Bell, now agreed the county can only ask voters to approve the full half-cent of additional taxing authority,

With that clarification, the County Commission would have to craft bond referendum language for additional sales tax authority that would fund both the jail expansion and crisis center, Weinaug said.

It is estimated a half-cent sales tax would raise about $9.7 million annually, Weinaug said. That would provide enough revenue to make annual debt payments on the crisis center and jail expansion and pay for the additional services at the mental health center, he said. It would also provide some of the $6.1 million that the jail expansion is estimated to add to the jail’s annual operating cost, he said.

Asking voters to approve the half-cent sales tax for only one of the initiatives would generate much more revenue than needed, Weinaug said. That excess revenue could be used to pay off debt sooner, but then the county would be left with an even larger pot of revenue it couldn’t use because of the restriction it be used for jail expansion or mental health initiatives.

The other option would be to fund the initiatives through property taxes, Weinaug said. That could be done with a single ballot question or separate referendums.

But Weinaug is now estimating that the two initiatives would require an increase of 12 to 13 mills in the county’s property tax rate to construct the crisis center, provide the additional behavioral health services associated with that facility, build the jail expansion and pay for added jail operational costs. That would be a property tax increase of historic proportions for Douglas County.

Another option is to ask the Kansas Legislature to simply change the wording of the current Douglas County law to allow for greater flexibility. But County Commission Chairman Mike Gaughan said Wednesday he wasn’t supportive of making that request.

He said he didn’t view the legislative request as an option because of the pressing need of continued jail overcrowding, the demand for more mental health services and the uncertainty of how the Legislature would respond to any request to amend the additional sales tax authority.

“There’s no telling what we would get back from Topeka,” he said, “The one thing we know is it will take time. As a commission, we’ve studied and studied these issues and added programs to address overcrowding, and our needs continue to grow. I don’t think waiting when we have clear and obvious needs is the right approach.”

Gaughan said the County Commission’s goal was to craft referendum language to present to County Clerk Jamie Shew by the end of January.

The County Commission will study the sales tax option further at its Jan. 10 meeting, Weinaug said. Robert Tryanski, county director of behavioral health projects, would also present information on services associated with the crisis center and their costs at the meeting, he said.

At a County Commission meeting last month on the crisis center and associated services, members of the faith-based activist group Justice Matters asked commissioners to put jail expansion and the crisis center on separate ballot questions. Ben MacConnell, Justice Matters lead organizer, said the group was still hopeful commissioners would allow county voters to make individual decisions on the merits of each initiative.

“We think the jail is going to be very unpopular,” he said. “We’re worried people who need mental health services will be denied the services because people reject a $44 million jail expansion. They should figure to how to finance the projects separately.”