Editorial: Options exist for jail, center

The county should consider a variety of ways to fund the two related but separate facilities.

Douglas County commissioners would be wise to consider carefully what approach to take in asking voters for a tax increase to pay for a jail expansion, mental health crisis center and operation of both.

Some — most notably, Justice Matters — have argued that the jail and mental health center should be presented to voters as separate issues. A previous Journal-World editorial also advocated for keeping the issues separate.

But last week, county officials contended that the only option is to submit a single ballot issue seeking a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for the $44 million jail expansion and the mental health campus, whose cost has yet to be finalized.

County Administrator Craig Weinaug said language in legislation approved in 2015 authorizing Douglas County to seek a sales tax specifically for construction of the jail and mental health campus is limited to a 0.5 percent tax. The legislation does not allow the county to divide the half-cent into, for example, a 0.4 percent sales tax for the jail and a 0.1 percent tax for the mental health campus.

Weinaug said getting legislative approval to allow for individual tax increments needed to fund Douglas County’s projects separately would be enormously complex, and would further delay a jail project that is sorely needed given that the county routinely has 60 to 70 inmates more than its 186-bed jail can accommodate.

Besides, county officials argue, the 0.5 percent sales tax would provide approximately $9.7 million per year, almost all that is needed to pay for the jail, mental health center and the increased operational costs associated with both.

But it’s important to note that it should not be difficult to get legislative approval in the 2018 session to amend the Douglas County statute to allow for a sales tax rate in .25 percent increments, giving the county greater flexibility in the scope of the projects. And to date, the county has solely focused on sales tax to fund the projects. Property taxes or a combination of sales and property taxes could be considered.

County commissioners have not finalized what they plan to put before voters or when they plan to do it, though they are expected to consider options at a meeting Wednesday. Commissioners should remember that, while they may require more time and effort, there are ways to fund the jail expansion and the mental health center separately.

No doubt, there is a correlation between mental health and incarceration. But commissioners should keep in mind that the Douglas County Jail and the new mental health campus will be separate facilities, in different locations with distinct missions. Bundling them into a single ballot issue is risky political calculus that limits voters’ choices and encourages opponents of one project to vote against both.