Justice Matters says it will actively oppose mental health sales tax if county doesn’t rein in dollar amount
photo by: Nick Krug
The faith-based group Justice Matters has successfully led one opposition campaign to a Douglas County sales tax proposal. A leader of the group today told me the organization is prepared to lead another one, if needed.
While voters in today’s primary elections are focused on races for governor, Congress and other high-profile positions, attention soon will turn to a countywide tax election that Douglas County commissioners will put on the November ballot.
Commissioners have agreed to put a tax proposal on the November ballot to fund a mental health crisis center and related programs. But county commissioners haven’t decided how large of a tax increase or whether it should be a sales or a property tax increase. Commissioners are expected to discuss the ballot issue at their Aug. 15 meeting.
Justice Matters is sending a message ahead of that meeting. If commissioners choose to put a half-cent sales tax on the ballot — one of several options under consideration — the faith-based group will run an active campaign to defeat the sales tax.
Instead, Justice Matters is urging commissioners to put a quarter-cent sales tax proposal on the ballot. Rose Schmidt, co-president of Justice Matters, pledged the group would work hard to see that a quarter-cent sales tax for mental health wins at the ballot box.
“We would endorse it, we would campaign for it, we would be full-heartedly behind it,” Schmidt said of a quarter-cent sales tax option.
But if commissioners choose to go with a half-cent sales tax, county leaders should expect an opposition campaign, Schmidt said. She said a half-cent sales tax proposal would be too similar to Proposition 1, which was a half-cent sales tax proposal that would have funded both mental health initiatives and a $44 million expansion of the Douglas County Jail. Voters in May defeated that proposal by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin. Justice Matters objected to the jail expansion plans, and led an opposition campaign against Proposition 1.
County officials this time aren’t contemplating using any sales tax dollars for a jail expansion. Instead, the language of any sales tax proposal would limit the uses to mental health or behavioral health care projects.
But a half-cent sales tax is projected to generate just under $10 million per year in revenue for the county. Thus far, the county’s proposal for mental health projects totals about $5.75 million a year. Rose said Justice Matters is worried the county would find a way to use the additional funding to move ahead with jail expansion projects.
“When commissioners talk about flexibility in budgeting, that phrase really makes me nervous,” Schmidt said. “That makes me wonder whether this isn’t a way to get 3 to 4 million dollars a year for jail expansion when voters have just voted that down.”
Justice Matters — which says it has several hundred members spread across 18 church congregations in the county — sent a letter to the county and other stakeholders about its position on any upcoming tax election. That letter, which the group also sent to me, didn’t specifically say Justice Matters would run a campaign against a half-cent sales tax. But it seemed to imply such an opposition campaign would occur. I asked Schmidt to clarify, and she confirmed the group would run a campaign against a half-cent sales tax, saying such a proposal would be “even less transparent than the failed Proposition 1 proposal.”
“If it looks like Proposition 1, version 2.0, we would have to oppose it,” Schmidt said.
The concern about the County Commission putting a half-cent sales tax on the ballot and using the excess revenues to somehow benefit jail expansion is complicated. While the current county commissioners have said they still believe overcrowding needs to be addressed at the jail, they haven’t talked of using a new sales tax to fund it. Presumably, they are operating off an assumption that voters aren’t looking for such a solution since they rejected Proposition 1.
However, as the Journal-World has reported, the county’s current budget has several million dollars of mental health programs that are funded by property taxes. If a mental health sales tax were approved, it would be possible for those mental health programs that currently are being funded by property taxes to be transferred over to the sales tax fund. That potentially would free up several million dollars of property tax funding that could be applied — without a public vote — to jail expansion efforts.
The County Commission, however, hasn’t expressed much interest in using that type of strategy to fund a jail expansion. But, unless the sales tax ballot language is written in a very specific way, it would be difficult to stop future county commissions from implementing such a strategy.
It will be an issue to watch. There are a few unanswered questions with Justice Matter’s strategy as well.
The potential problem with a quarter-cent sales tax proposal is it likely will not generate enough revenue to fully fund the $5.75 million in planned mental health projects. It would be about $800,000 short of raising the necessary $5.75 million.
Justice Matter said in its statement that its preferred option for filling the $800,000 gap would be for the county to approach outside entities to help with funding. High on their list is Lawrence Memorial Hospital, which the group argues would benefit from having a mental health crisis center in the community. Also on the list are area counties, who currently don’t have a mental health crisis center but could contract to use a Douglas County facility.
The group said it also would consider supporting a small property tax increase to make up the shortfall, or would be open to the county trimming the proposed mental health budget by $800,000, Schmidt said.
One other potential sticking point is that Justice Matters said it would like for a sales tax to sunset after 20 years. That means the tax would expire, unless voters agreed to renew it. Some commissioners have expressed opposition to a sunset, since much of the tax will be used to pay for ongoing, annual operating expenses. A sunset would put those programs at risk, if voters chose not to renew the tax at the end of the 20-year period.
It wasn’t clear in my conversations with Justice Matters, however, whether the group will require the sunset provision in order to endorse any tax.
And, of course, what’s also not clear is how important county leaders believe an endorsement from Justice Matters will be in any upcoming election.