Archive for Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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.

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

January 16, 2018


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.


Richard Heckler 4 months, 1 week ago

I will not vote n support of a jail expansion.

Ryan Hickman 4 months, 1 week ago

Nobody should support the expansion of the jail. Our commissioners should be ashamed of themselves for not putting pressure on the legislature, DA, Sheriff, and Courts to figure out a solution to the overcrowding issue. A larger jail will simply increase the number of people whose lives are negatively affected by not being able to afford bail and/or who are currently incarcerated because they are suffering from mental illness. We will have more room to house low level non-felony offenders and even less incentive to speed up the processing of inmates.

Vote down jail expansion and make the commissioners have some hard budget conversations with the groups that could fix current overcrowding problem. The commission will keep saying they've done everything they can. They have not. Other communities have solved the problem without a $44 million expansion and so can we. It simply takes a will to do it. Commissioners should find the will or find another job. They are hurting people now and hundreds more in the future by taking the attitude that it can't be done. The idea floated by our commission of "compassionate incarceration" is CRAZY. Keeping people in jail because they can't afford a few hundred dollars for bail while they lose their jobs and their families suffer - how is that compassionate?

Vote this atrocity down and then vote out the commission. This is a pathetic joke with painful consequences. Lawrence can and must do better. We are better than this.

Patrick Wilbur 4 months, 1 week ago

From this year's budget discussion:

Although Commissioner Michelle Derusseau said she supported the behavioral health initiatives in the budget, she requested cuts in two of the programs so that the budget's overall mill levy increase could be limited to 1.761 mills. Continued county tax increases were exacerbating the county’s affordable housing problems, she said.

“Over the last eight years, the county has increased its mill levy 11.2 mills,” she said. “I’d like to get back to a 1.76-mill increase. Exempt or nonexempt (spending) doesn’t mean anything to taxpayers.”

The county has steadily increased the burden on taxpayers over the past decade. Yes - some of this spending is non-discretionary, but much of it can be tracked to decisions made by the commission and staff. Decisions have consequences and now we face yet another sales tax ballot question. If the county feels it must ask for a jail expansion take the time to do this correctly and separate the questions. The county asked for the original text from the legislature and it can do that again.

RJ Johnson 4 months, 1 week ago

Quick fix for the overcrowding problem - Stop breaking the law!!

Rich Lorenzo 4 months, 1 week ago

Agree with Mr. Hickman. These commissioners seem to have made up their mind a long time ago that they were going to build a brand, new jail. We must look at other similar communities that have had success with implementing jail alternatives. I will vote no.

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