Fact-checking county commissioners on assertion that big budget cuts will come if voters reject jail/mental health sales tax

photo by: Mike Yoder

Douglas County Jail

Passing a new tax often is about painting pictures. Supporters of the tax paint a pretty picture of what happens if the tax is approved, or they paint an ugly picture of what happens if it is rejected.

As Douglas County commissioners try to convince voters to support a half-cent sales tax for jail and mental health improvements, they’ve been painting both. If approved, the tax would fund a mental health campus that would provide housing for those who struggle to find it, treatment for those who often go without, and help to prevent people from falling into crisis. If the tax fails and the jail isn’t expanded, there will continue to be inmates sleeping in work rooms, violent offenders interspersed with nonviolent offenders, and conditions that are producing potentially dangerous unrest for both inmates and corrections officers.

Simply put, county officials believe overcrowding at the jail has reached a crisis and inmates are not being treated in a way befitting a caring community. It is not clear, though, whether a majority of the electorate feels that way. Opposition groups have formed that want the proposed mental health services but don’t want the $44 million jail expansion.

With that in mind, county commissioners have been painting a starker picture of what happens if voters this spring reject the sales tax. The county would work to expand the jail in phases, and it would fund it by cutting other county services, perhaps even some existing mental health services.

Based on reader feedback, it seems that scenario has struck a nerve. It also has created a question: Is it true? It is true that the county could do that. But there is also another scenario county officials didn’t offer. It involves the county getting more than $4 million to expand the jail and still having millions to add new mental health services.

But it would involve the county doing something that is has resisted and that groups like Justice Matters have urged: creating a ballot question — likely in November — that funds only mental health projects and not a jail expansion.

Let’s sort through this by looking at three points:

• If the spring sales tax fails, plans for a $44 million jail expansion are basically done. The county could fund a jail expansion using cash from its existing budget, but it can’t cut $44 million from its budget. Plus, the current plan, if built in phases, would cost a lot more than $44 million. Phased projects cost a lot more because of inflation and other factors. How many phases the county would try to do is also unclear. Voters will have a say on that. There is a county election in November 2018, where Commissioner Mike Gaughan’s seat is up for election. The other two seats face election in November 2020. If voters don’t want to do a jail expansion, they likely will elect people who also don’t want to do a jail expansion.

• If the spring sales tax fails, watching how it fails will be important. If the county determines voters liked the mental health projects but disliked the jail plan, then the county may have a financial incentive to put a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot that would fund only mental health. To understand why, you need to know a bit about the county’s budget. The county’s existing budget has $4.2 million of mental health services, such as Bert Nash funding, that are funded by property taxes. If a mental health sales tax were approved, that $4.2 million could be removed from the property tax portion of the county’s budget and transferred to the sales tax portion of the budget. That frees up $4.2 million of property tax money that could be spent on the jail expansion, and the county gets that money without making any cuts to services. In addition, the sales tax is expected to generate about $10 million in funding, which means the county would have about $6 million in funding left for new mental health services.

• People who think the county needs a $44 million jail expansion should hate this scenario. That’s because $4.2 million isn’t enough to build the necessary improvements, even if you spend that amount year after year. Even though county officials have said they would do a phased jail expansion, it is clear they really dislike the idea. They believe the jail is in desperate need of improvements, and a phased approach would produce fewer improvements and take longer to deliver. But if voters reject the spring sales tax, that might be a sign that a majority of residents don’t agree with that assessment. At that point, commissioners are left with the phased expansion or nothing at all. If that is the boat they are in, commissioners are going to be under tremendous political pressure to limit the amount of budget cuts needed to fund the jail. Mental health advocates would be livid if existing mental health services are cut. They would clamor for a mental health-only sales tax. If county officials believe there is any chance such a tax could pass, and then choose not to put it on the ballot, they would face a lot of tough political questions.

I asked all three county commissioners last week why they haven’t talked about this scenario when explaining to voters what would happen if the spring election fails. All said it was a scenario that they just hadn’t focused on. I asked all whether they would be open to putting a mental-health only sales tax on the ballot if the spring sales tax fails. All three said they wanted to focus on convincing voters to pass the current sales tax proposal, although Commissioner Michelle Derusseau said: “We are going to be looking at all of our options, if it comes to that.”

Politically, it makes sense that commissioners don’t want to talk too much about what happens if the vote fails. But they are the ones who raised the issue and planted the seed of painful budget cuts. I followed up on it simply because readers had questions about what commissioners were saying or implying. Presumably, commissioners raised the issue of what happens if the vote fails to encourage people to vote for the sales tax. That may not end up being a winning strategy.

To cover their bets, commissioners may need to find another picture to paint. County Commissioner Mike Gaughan had the makings of one when we talked last week.

“We have to make sure people understand the needs aren’t going away,” Gaughan said. “I hope the compassion that exists in this community extends to people who are in jail. I believe it does.”

More coverage: Douglas County push for jail expansion, behavioral health campus

• Feb. 17, 2018 — 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