Douglas County Commission agrees to put behavioral health projects on ballot; funding mechanism not yet decided

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 agreed Wednesday that they will ask voters in November to approve funding for a behavioral health campus and expanded programming, but they have yet to decide what specific funding mechanism will be on the ballot.

The commission’s decision follows voters’ rejection of Proposition 1 in May. Had that referendum been approved, it would have authorized a new half-cent sales tax to fund an $11 million behavioral health campus, $5 million annually in new behavioral health services and a $44 million expansion of the county jail.

The commission must still select the statutory authority used to request funding for the behavioral health initiatives. The selected statutory authority will determine the type and amount of the tax increase the county will request of voters.

On Wednesday, commissioners agreed to make decisions on those details on Aug. 15 and to approve official ballot language on Aug. 22.

County Administrator Craig Weinaug said the behavioral health projects envisioned in Proposition 1 would require a total of $5.75 million a year. Of that annual amount, $5 million would fund new programming and the remaining $750,000 would be used to pay off bonds that would finance the construction of the campus.

Weinaug said the funding mechanisms the commission could put on the ballot hadn’t changed since he last presented them to commissioners on July 11. They are:

• A dedicated 4.3 mills of property tax authority.

• The half-cent sales tax under the statutory authority used to advance Proposition 1.

• A quarter-cent sales tax under the statutory authority that Mary Carson, a Wichita attorney hired by the faith-based activist group Justice Matters, brought to the county’s attention on July 9. That statute also allows the county to ask for half-cent and 1-cent sales tax increases.

When he first brought these options before the commission, Weinaug said all three had downsides. The half-cent sales tax would raise $4 million more than the $5.75 million needed annually for the Proposition 1 behavioral health initiatives, and the quarter-cent tax would raise about $800,000 less than needed. The property tax would raise the required amount but would delay construction of the campus because revenue from the additional mill levy wouldn’t be collected until 2020. Use of a half-cent sales tax option would require behavioral health programming to be scaled up beyond what was proposed in Proposition 1, while the quarter-cent option would require the current plan to be scaled back.

During public comment, Justice Matters member Belinda Davis told commissioners the organization favored the quarter-cent sales tax because it would be more acceptable to voters. The group also asked for the bond language to specify that the tax would sunset when the bonds for the campus were paid off, and for the county to hire an independent firm to perform an annual financial and service delivery audit of the campus and enhanced services.

The commission also received a letter from Hayden Maples, chairman of the citizen tax watchdog group Lawrence Sunset Alliance. Maples’ letter also expressed preference for the quarter-cent option.

While not endorsing any funding option, Russ Johnson, CEO of Lawrence Memorial Hospital, told commissioners they should be mindful that federal and state funding for mental health and substance abuse programs would continue to decline. He said future program funding would need to be flexible, not only because of the continued lack of outside support, but also because of challenges such as the growing opioid crisis.

Commissioner Mike Gaughan agreed with Johnson that the funding should be flexible. He said he opposed any tax sunset because most of the $5.75 million envisioned for Proposition 1 behavioral health uses would fund programming. Those needs would not go away when construction bonds were retired, he said.

Commission Chair Nancy Thellman asked Weinaug to explore whether a single ballot question could ask for both a mill levy increase to pay for capital cost and a new sales tax for programming. If such a mechanism were possible, the dedicated mill levy could sunset when construction bonds for the campus were retired, she suggested.


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