Douglas County Commission approves language for ballot question on jail expansion, behavioral health campus

Douglas County Jail

The Douglas County Commission approved Wednesday the words the county will use to ask voters for a half-cent in sales tax authority to pay for the expansion of the county jail and to develop a behavioral health campus.

Commissioners agreed last week the sales tax revenues would pay for an estimated $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 would raise an estimated $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.

The bond language that was approved was a slightly modified version of the language that appeared on the county website and in a story in Wednesday’s Journal-World, Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said. The minor changes to the language were intended to ensure that use of the sales tax revenue would be limited to the two intended capital projects and their operating costs, he said.

The new language reads:

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 County mental health and support facilities and pay operating expenses thereof; and (b) construct, furnish and equip additions and improvements to the County’s jail and detention 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?

In public comments, Lawrence resident Susan Kristiansen asked why the specific amounts to be spent on the jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives weren’t in the referendum’s language.

“It doesn’t specify at all how the money is to be split between the two,” she said. “I think we owe it to voters to say — otherwise it could be just for the jail.”

Weinaug said the costs weren’t listed in the language because the county only had estimates of the costs, not final figures. The wording gave the county flexibility should the cost of either project exceed those estimates, he said.

The referendum language stating the sales tax would be used to build both projects and pay for their operating costs ensured sales tax revenue would not be used only to fund the jail, Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said. The county would not be in compliance with voter instructions should it not fund everything listed in the question, she said.

The referendum language will now be sent to Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew to schedule a mail ballot. Shew said Tuesday the ballots would be mailed April 24 and counted May 15.

Shew estimated the mail ballot election would cost between $130,999 and $150,000, and projected about 35 percent of registered county voters would return ballots.

Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said the cost of the mail ballot was justified because if the commission waited to pose the question in the November general election — which Shew estimated would draw a 45 percent to 49 percent turnout — inflation would add an estimated $500,000 to the cost of the jail expansion. Delaying the election would also prolong existing safety concerns at the jail and the need to house at least 50 inmates daily in other counties’ jails, she said. Finally, the important issues addressed in the bond referendum deserved to be considered in a stand-alone election without the distraction of partisan political contests, she said.

Weinaug said the county was researching whether county elected officials could advocate for the sales tax and its projects by sharing informational materials with the public.

Thellman said she planned to meet with residents about the referendum from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Mondays at the Lawrence Public Library. Updates on what rooms she would be in would be posted on her Facebook page, she said. Commissioner Michelle Derusseau said she would also meet with residents from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month at the Wakarusa Township Fire Station, 300 W. 31st St.