Editorial: County comes clean on Prop 1

The county tried to scare voters into approving the controversial referendum; that didn’t work.

Recent developments in Douglas County government underscore that the voters got it right when they rejected a proposed half-cent sales tax to fund a $44 million jail expansion and the construction of a mental health crisis center.

In essence, voters called county officials’ bluff in turning down Proposition 1 by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent on May 15. The Journal-World, it should be noted, endorsed Proposition 1.

In February, Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug presented a memo to county commissioners that laid out what would happen if Proposition 1 failed. That memo indicated significant cuts to the county’s budget that “would have to include the full range of services including social services, public health services, mental health services, and infrastructure maintenance.”

But last week, Weinaug said that, in putting together the county’s 2019 budget, he would not propose across the board reductions after all. Social services — including the approximately $1.5 million in new behavioral health services programs that the county has begun — will not need to be cut significantly to fund improvements at the jail.

Funding also will be maintained for the reforms put in place in 2017 and 2018 to provide alternatives to incarceration, Weinaug said.

In defending the reversal in positions, Weinaug said the county’s financial outlook had improved since February.

Also last week, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority said plans were moving forward on building an eight- to 10-unit apartment complex that is to be part of the mental health campus included in the Proposition 1 ballot. Construction of the apartment complex, designed to serve as a longer term housing option for those with mental health issues, wasn’t dependent on approval of Proposition 1. Instead, funding will come from Housing and Urban Development grants. But the sales tax would have provided funding for the professional behavioral heath support made available to tenants in the apartment complex.

Now that Proposition 1 has failed, Shannon Oury, executive director of the Housing Authority, said the organization has other options for funding support services in partnership with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. One option is to make use of a HUD continuum of care grant. Another is to allow tenants to apply Section 8 vouchers toward support services.

So, to recap, the financial distress that the county had forecast if Proposition 1 failed isn’t actually going to come to pass and funding from a half-cent sales tax wasn’t essential to provide mental health support services to all residents of the mental health campus. And the election was less than a month ago.

County officials chose a doom-and-gloom approach to Proposition 1 by trying to scare voters into approving it out of fear of what would happen if they didn’t. The voters saw through the tactic and were right. Let that be a lesson for the county in future campaigns.


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