A group has formed to campaign in favor of the proposed countywide half-cent sales tax and the jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives that the tax would fund.
Jean Shepherd, a retired Douglas County District Court judge, said she would head the group Citizens for a Better Douglas County with its treasurer, former local bank executive Jean Milstead. The group, which includes among its members former Douglas County Commissioner Jim Flory and former Kansas Attorney General Stephen Six, will make the case that the jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives are needed.
If voters approve the sales tax referendum, it will generate an estimated $9.8 million annually to fund construction of the $44 million jail expansion and an $11 million behavioral health campus with a crisis center and supported housing. It would also provide $5.1 million a year for new behavioral health programming and $1 million of the $6.1 million needed per year to operate an expanded jail. Mail-in ballots will be sent April 25 to the county's registered voters and counted May 15.
“From living and working in this community for some time, I have been aware of the need for a state-of-the-art mental health crisis center,” Shepherd said. “That the county has brought all the players together to provide a mental health proposal of that scope is really quite phenomenal. I have watched the situation at the jail become more and more difficult for the people who work there and in custody. I strongly believe we have the obligation to provide them (inmates) with services that serve them when they leave so they don’t become caught in a revolving door back to jail.”
With Douglas County elected officials and staff limited by statute to neutral informational comments, Citizens for a Better Douglas County will take on that advocacy role in a campaign that already includes organized opposition.
Earlier this month, the Lawrence faith-based activist group Justice Matters, the Lawrence chapter of the NAACP, the social justice advocacy group Kansas Appleseed and the taxpayer watchdog group Lawrence Sunset Alliance announced the formation of Jail No coalition to campaign against the referendum. At a joint March 2 event at the Douglas County Courthouse, representatives of the different groups said their opposition was based on the jail expansion, as the coalition’s name implies. The Jail No representatives were also critical of the County Commission’s linking the jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives on the same ballot question, saying county residents should be allowed to decide the individual merits of each proposal.
Such a linkage was not unprecedented in Douglas County, Shepherd said. The 1994 ballot initiative that funded construction of the current jail also built the Community Health Building that is home to Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and the aquatic center at Free State High School. Those projects were part of a countywide 1-cent sales tax that is required, by law, to be shared between the county and the other cities in the county.
“I think there is a connection between community health and the jail,” she said. “The proposals would not only place behavioral health professionals in the jail, but would provide an available option to place offenders when appropriate. But the front door of the crisis center is for the community. It is not a jail removal crisis center filled with inmates."
Shepherd said that the group would distribute campaign signs urging county residents to vote for the referendum and that its members would make the case for the proposals it would fund in upcoming forums on the issue.
More coverage: Douglas County votes on jail expansion, behavioral health campus• April 17, 2018 — Average daily population at Douglas County Jail fell slightly in 2017 to reverse 5-year trend
• April 17 — Douglas County counselor: Meeting with Justice Matters about proposed petition would not be appropriate
• April 17 — Despite campaign literature to the contrary, county officials confirm there’s no legal finding that Douglas County Jail must be expanded
• April 16 — Douglas County legal counselor finds proposed Justice Matters petition legally invalid, but group says it can be fixed
• April 16 — What you will see and hear on a Douglas County Jail tour
• April 15 — Speakers at criminal justice, behavioral health forum look beyond jail expansion, crisis center
• April 14 — County-funded training expands number of peer-support specialists to share ‘been there, got better’ message
• April 11 — Criminal justice group’s spokeswoman says expanding Douglas County Jail would contribute to nation’s mass incarceration problem
• April 9 — Douglas County Commission may be forced to put new mental health, tax plan on November ballot
• March 25 — Increasing population at Douglas County jail at odds with national trend
• March 22 — Advocacy group forms to support county referendum on jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• March 21 — Douglas County District Court chief judge defends court’s processes, agrees serious felony crime is increasing
• March 12 — County’s pretrial release, home-arrest programs diverting large numbers from jail, but not enough to prevent overcrowding
• March 11 — DA was more likely to grant a diversion in 2017, but number of people seeking them declined
• March 6 — Douglas County Sheriff’s Office offering jail tours, presentations in advance of spring referendum
• March 5 — Online behavioral health care site available free to county residents pending referendum outcome
• March 4 — Felonies, not pot smoking, filling up the Douglas County Jail, new report says
• March 3 — Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion
• March 1 — Town Talk: Here comes the opposition: Four groups join forces to campaign against Douglas County jail expansion
• Feb. 21 — Douglas County will face tough choices on jail expansion if tax referendum fails, official says
• Feb. 20 — Building jail expansion in phases would take 16 years, $6M to $8M a year, county says
• Feb. 19 — Town Talk: Fact checking county commissioners on assertion that big budget cuts will come if voters reject jail/mental health sales tax
• Feb. 17 — Activist leaders blast proposed expansion of Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 12 — As voters consider $44M expansion, report finds some changes could reduce overcrowding at Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 7 — Douglas County Commission to schedule forums on jail and mental health referendum, provide information on what happens if voters reject
• Feb. 4 — Johnson County built a larger jail and now has 300 unused beds; Douglas County can't use them
• Jan. 30 — State law won't allow Douglas County commissioners to campaign for passage of jail, mental health sales tax
• Jan. 24 — Douglas County Commission approves language for ballot question on jail expansion, behavioral health campus
• Jan. 22 — Following the money: Douglas County partners beefing up behavioral health services with funding
• Jan. 17 — Douglas County Commission agrees to put jail expansion, behavioral health campus on same ballot question
• Jan. 16 — Town Talk: Many residents want to vote separately on jail, mental health projects; there's a way, but county unlikely to go there
• Jan. 16 — Douglas County commissioners ready to ask voters to approve jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• Jan. 15 — 2014 speedy trial redefinition clogging Douglas County jail, district court
• Jan. 10 — Price tag of behavioral health campus, services estimated at $5.76 million annually
• Jan. 8 — No insurance and hooked on drugs? Chances are, you won't find treatment in Douglas County
• Jan. 5 — Town Talk: A look at how high Lawrence's sales tax rate would be if voters approve increase for jail, mental health
• Jan. 3, 2018 — Due to misunderstanding, county now says jail expansion, mental health projects must be on same sales tax ballot
• Dec. 31, 2017 — Undersheriff says 2016 annual report shows overcrowding threatening jail safety, re-entry programming
• Dec. 18 — Behavioral health campus plan grew from recognition of housing's role in crisis recovery
• Dec. 13 — Services that will be part of behavioral health campus to be introduced next month at LMH
• Dec. 13 — Douglas County commissioners confident of voter buy-in on jail expansion plan
• Nov. 30 — Douglas County commission agrees to move ahead with $44 million jail expansion design
• Nov. 26 — Sheriff's Office exploring modular units as stopgap solution to Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• Nov. 8 — Douglas County Sheriff's Office recommends jail redesign that would more than double number of beds
• Oct. 4 — Jail expansion, crisis center would require public vote on new taxes, officials say
• Sept. 20 — Estimated cost to expand Douglas County Jail jumps by millions of dollars
• July 26 — Douglas County Commission to forward report on future jail population to architects
• July 16 — Double bunking not considered solution for Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• June 26 — Jail, mental health initiatives help drive proposed tax increase in 2018 county budget
• May 14 — Douglas County data showing swelling jail population despite fewer arrests
• April 5, 2017 — Sheriff urges Douglas County Commission to make jail expansion a priority