Douglas County commissioners ready to ask voters to approve jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives

The Douglas County Commission meets in the historic courtroom on the second floor of the county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

Douglas County commissioners say they are ready to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to fund an $11 million behavioral health campus and associated services, plus a $44 million expansion of the county jail.

On the commission’s agenda for its Wednesday meeting is “discussion and decisions” on the proposed jail expansion and behavioral health projects.

Commission Chair Nancy Thellman and Commissioners Mike Gaughan and Michelle Derusseau all said they were ready to move forward with asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to pay for the behavioral health initiatives and jail expansion.

“People need to understand the jail is our statutory obligation,” Derusseau said. “We have to do the jail expansion before we can do another capital project. If we separate mental health, all it’s going to do is delay mental health.”

Thellman said asking voters to approve the half-cent sales tax to cover both projects was the simplest option before commissioners.

“The jail expansion is a necessary statutory obligation that has to be done,” she said. “The question to me is the opportunity to finance it in such a way the mental health initiatives can come along. That is the clear advantage of the sales tax. It is the tool that covers both major projects almost entirely and shares the costs beyond property owners.”?

Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky estimated the sales tax would raise $9.7 million annually, which would cover the estimated $750,000 in annual debt payments for the behavioral health campus, $5.1 million in associated behavioral health service costs and $3 million in annual debt service for the jail expansion. It also would provide about $1 million of the estimated $6.1 million needed for added operational costs associated with the expansion. About three years after the vote, when the expansion would be ready to house inmates, an estimated 3.8 mill property tax increase would be needed to cover the rest of those new operational costs. Because those costs are a public safety expense, the mill levy increase would not be subject to the state tax lid legislation, so a public vote would not be required.

Derusseau and Thellman said the sales tax had the added advantage of being the quickest way for the county to put a question funding the two initiatives before voters. Commissioners have discussed using a mail-in ballot for the referendum, which County Clerk Jamie Shew said would cost the county between $130,000 and $150,000.

It would take 110 days to get results from a mail-in referendum after the County Commission presents the ballot language to the county clerk’s office, Plinsky said.

But if the county were to ask voters to approve property taxes to expand the jail or build the behavioral health campus, it would add about 75 days to that timetable, she said. That’s how long she estimated it would take for the county to authorize a public building commission, a necessary step in such a plan.

State statute limits to $300,000 the amount of property tax-backed general obligation bonds that county commissions in Kansas can issue to finance a building, Plinsky said. County commissions can, however, create and then authorize public building commissions to issue property tax-backed general obligation bonds of more than that amount, she said. In 2015, the Douglas County Commission took the first step and created a public building commission, but it never gave authorization to that body, she said.

Authorization of a public building commission would delay any building project, Plinsky said, because that action would be subject to a protest petition once notice of the authorization was published in the Journal-World.

Thellman said commissioners would give county staff the direction Wednesday to write the bond referendum language. The actual language to be delivered to the county clerk’s office will be approved at a later meeting, she said.

The commission will meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.