State law won’t allow Douglas County commissioners to campaign for passage of jail, mental health sales tax

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

Douglas County commissioners plan to use the next four months to explain why they decided to put on the ballot a half-cent sales tax to pay for a jail expansion and mental health initiatives, but they won’t be allowed to urge residents to vote yes for the projects.

After receiving questions about the subject, county officials don’t believe state law allows county commissioners to be active campaigners for or against the sales tax issue.

Commissioners approved last week the wording of a ballot question authorizing an additional half-cent of sales tax authority. The question is to be submitted to voters through a mail-in election to be conducted from April 25 through May 15. If the referendum is approved, the half-cent sales tax would raise an estimated $9.8 million annually to support bond funding for a $44 million expansion of the county jail, develop a $11 million behavioral health center, provide $5.1 million in annual funding for behavioral health programming and about $1 million of the additional $6.1 million needed each year to operate a larger jail.

At the Jan. 24 meeting at which the ballot language was approved, Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said county staff was still researching the extent to which commissioners could advocate for the half-cent sales tax and the projects it would fund. At that time, he didn’t rule out the possibility that commissioners could publicly advocate voters cast ballots in favor of the referendum.

Weinaug and commissioners now agree that state statute prevents commissioners from advocating county residents vote in favor of the bond question. After further research and discussions with county counselor John Bullock, he said, it was now agreed commissioners can present information and answer questions regarding the referendum and discuss options available to them should the referendum fail. Commissioners should not, however, advocate for or encourage a yes vote, he said.

It always was understood statements from county staff and materials on the referendum the county provides could only be educational and informational in nature, Weinaug said.

Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said she would let the facts make the case for the sales tax, jail expansion and behavior health initiatives.

“It’s clear we can educate and provide compelling information,” she said. “The story we have to tell is a very compelling one, but the people with the county have to be careful not to come down with telling people to vote yes.”

County Commissioner Michelle Derusseau said she had not talked with the county counselor about the restrictions but understood the limits.

“We can’t as a general rule ask people to vote yes,” she said. “We can explain why we went in that direction, what the options were and what could happen going forward.”

As the campaign for the referendum gets started, Thellman and Derusseau have scheduled regular meetings to share information on the issue.

Thellman said she would meet with constituents on Mondays at the Lawrence Public Library. She would schedule the meetings at various times to accommodate the different schedules of constituents. The weekly time of the meeting and location within the library will be posted on her Facebook page, she said.

Derusseau will have referendum informational meetings from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month at the Wakarusa Township Fire Station, 300 W. 31st St. Commissioner. Mike Gaughan said he would look to schedule informational meetings on days other than Monday and Tuesday.

Thellman and Derusseau said they anticipated a pro-referendum group would be formed to advocate for the referendum and the projects it would fund.

“I expect so,” Thellman said. “I know folks out there who have called and emailed me about how they can help. They will have to organize that themselves, but there is plenty of energy out there in support of the referendum.”

This month, members of the faith-based community activist group Justice Matters attended County Commission meetings, urging commissioners put the jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives before voters on separate ballots. Ben MacConnell, Justice Matters lead organizer, said the group has taken a position on the referendum but has not decided when to make it public.

Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, said the nonprofit opposed the referendum because of the bundling of the jail expansion with the behavioral health components. Appleseed’s opposition also is based on the county not contracting a thorough data-driven independent review of alternatives to incarceration, he said.

Appleseed won’t be going door to door or hosting events in opposition to the referendum, Magnuson said. Instead, the organization is inviting residents to visit its Facebook page to read its views of the referendum, he said.

The last day for unregistered voters to register to vote in the referendum is April 24.