County Commission to start discussion on behavioral health ballot question

photo by: Journal-World Graphic

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 start discussing the possibility of a November ballot question to fund a behavioral health campus and services.

It will be the first discussion of another ballot question since voters rejected Proposition 1 in May. Proposition 1 asked voters to decide on a half-cent sales tax to fund a $44 million expansion of the county jail, an $11 million behavioral health campus and $5.1 million in behavioral health services.

Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said the discussion Wednesday would be the first in a series needed to develop a plan. Commissioners will have to make decisions soon, she said, because ballot language has to be approved and delivered to the Douglas County Clerk’s Office by the first week in September to get the question on the November ballot.

The discussions will involve the options of using sales or property tax to fund the behavioral health campus and associated services, Thellman said. The county still has the authority under Kansas statute 12-187(B)(30) to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax for mental health, jail and courthouse improvement needs. That was the same authority that commissioners relied on for Proposition 1.

The county estimates that the half-cent sales tax would raise $9.8 million annually, which is about $4 million more than needed to build the campus and fund the $5.1 million associated services. However, Douglas County Commissioner Mike Gaughan said commissioners could opt to fund existing behavioral health programming with the excess sales tax revenue or additional services now being considered. He said that the county could also ask voters to make improvements to the Douglas County Law Enforcement Center, which would improve the efficiency of the Douglas County District Court.

Another option is to request that the Kansas Legislature reduce the half-cent in taxing authority provided in K.S.A. 12-187(B)(30) to a quarter of a cent. That would delay putting any ballot question before voters, because the Legislature couldn’t consider such a change until the start of its session in January 2019.

Commissioners also could opt to ask voters to approve a dedicated property tax levy to retire debt needed to build the behavioral health campus and fund operational costs, Thellman said. That, too, would delay development of the campus because the county couldn’t start collecting the tax until Jan. 1, 2020.

As the county starts discussion on a new ballot question, the advocacy group Justice Matters — which campaigned against Proposition 1 because of the proposed jail expansion — has provided the county with another possible option. Belinda Davis, chair of Justice Matters’ mental health committee, said Justice Matters hired Mary Carson, a Wichita attorney experienced in city and county government, to advise the group on how to get a behavioral health question before voters. Carson said the group could ask the County Commission to advance a sales tax question for behavioral health needs under Kansas statue 12-187(b)(5). That statute allows voters to approve a quarter-, half- or 1-cent sales tax for mental health needs, Carson told Justice Matters.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said he has asked county legal counsel John Bullock to investigate the use of that statute to advance a quarter-cent sales tax to fund the behavioral health campus and services. That information should be available Wednesday for commissioners to consider. If that sales tax is available and the county doesn’t have to share the revenue it produces with cities, it would eliminate any need to ask the Legislature to reduce the sales tax increment in 12-187(b)(30), he said.

County voters already approved in 1994 a 1-cent sales tax under 12-187(b)(5), Weinaug said. The county gets about 33 percent of the revenue from the tax and the county’s cities receive the remainder. The county now uses its share of the sales tax to retire debt on the Douglas County Public Works building and for operational costs at the county jail.

Carson also suggested a second option to Justice Matters, which is essentially the same as the one Thellman listed of asking the Legislature during the next session to change the amount of taxing authority that the county can ask voters to consider.

Support of a sales tax to fund a crisis center is a departure from the stance the Justice Matters took when campaigning against Proposition 1. Although that opposition primarily was based on the group’s objection to a larger jail and the county’s linkage of the behavioral health initiatives with the jail expansion, Justice Matters leadership did attack the sales tax as a funding mechanism that would create a hardship for the county’s poorer residents. In April, it attempted to launch a petition drive to force the County Commission to advance a ballot question that would fund a crisis center with a property tax. That effort failed to go forward because of the challenges involved in crafting petition language, collecting signatures and finding the right statutory authority to compel a ballot question, Davis wrote in a press release announcing the two ballot question options.

Despite that past stance, Davis said Monday that Justice Matters’ goal remained the same.

“Our preference always has been to put on the ballot by itself a question with the sole purpose that the revenue raised will go to mental health,” Davis said.

The Douglas County Commission meets at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St. For a complete agenda visit douglascountyks.org.

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