Douglas County Commission to consider wording of sales tax referendum to fund jail expansion, behavioral health campus

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

Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday will consider the wording for the referendum they will put before county voters asking for a half-cent sales tax to fund a county jail expansion and behavioral health campus and services.

Last week, commissioners agreed to seek approval from voters for an additional half-cent of sales tax authority starting in October to fund a $44 million expansion of the county jail, an $11 million behavioral health campus and $5.1 million in annual behavioral health services. The sales tax, which is estimated to raise $9.8 million annually, also is expected to provide about $1 million of the $6.1 million needed annually for increased operational costs from the jail expansion. A property tax increase of an estimated 3.8 mills would provide the remaining annual revenue needed for additional operational costs when the jail expansion is completed.

Commissioners also agreed last week to schedule a mail ballot for the election and agreed the ballots would be counted May 15. On Wednesday, commissioners will consider approving the following ballot question:

Shall the following be adopted?

Shall Douglas County, Kansas (the “County”), be authorized to: (1) impose a one-half percent (1/2 %) countywide retailers’ sales tax (the “Sales Tax”) for the purpose of financing the cost to: (a) construct, furnish and equip mental health and related administrative facilities for the County and pay operating expenses thereof; and (b) construct, furnish and equip additions and improvements to the County’s jail and detention facilities and related administrative facilities and pay operating expenses thereof (collectively the “Project”), collection of such Sales Tax to commence on October 1, 2018, or as soon thereafter as permitted by law; and (2) issue sales tax/general obligation bonds (the “Bonds”) of the County to pay all or a portion of the capital costs of the Project, related interest costs during construction and issuance costs; provided that the County receive, prior to the issuance of the Bonds, a comprehensive feasibility study that indicates the revenues received from the Sales Tax will be sufficient to retire the Bonds without the necessity of levying any ad valorem taxation; all pursuant to the authority of K.S.A. 12-187 et seq., as amended?

The proposed language reflects a request that Commission Chair Nancy Thellman made to county staff after last week’s decision that the ballot question be written so that the behavioral health components of the sales tax funding be listed first. She reasoned that behavioral health uses should be first because the bulk of the revenue from the sales tax would fund those projects.

Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew estimates a mail ballot would cost the county between $130,000 and $150,000. Shew said if the County Commission kept to its schedule, ballots would be mailed to county voters on April 25. The last day to register to vote in the referendum would be April 24, he said.

Based on participation in last May’s mail-in referendum for the $87 million Lawrence school bond, Shew estimated about 35 percent of the ballots would be returned. That is less than the 45 to 49 percent turnout he estimates for next November’s general election, which will include open contests for governor and the 2nd District congressional seat, but better than the 15 to 20 percent that could be expected at a traditional polling site special election, he said.

Commissioners said the cost of the mail ballot was justified because the delay of six months from May to November would add more than $500,000 to the cost of the jail expansion from inflation.

Commissioners will consider the language for a bond ballot question at a meeting at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St. The meeting will be at the 6 p.m. time slot the County Commission reserves for important issues or public hearings.