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


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.

Douglas County Jail

Douglas County Jail by Mike Yoder

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


Sharilyn Wells 3 months ago

How about having some compassion and figure out how not to have so many people in jail?

Clara Westphal 3 months ago

Look through the list of non-violent inmates to see if some of them could be released. That might help the crowding situation. It seems $44 million is a lot of money for a jail expansion. I would like to see an itemized list of what is planned.

RJ Johnson 3 months ago

That is part of the problem, we need to lock up people who break the law. In the last twenty years we've become to lenient of a society. Now we have all these snowflakes and school shootings!

Sharilyn Wells 3 months ago

We have the highest do you incarceration rate in the world. How many more people do you want to lock up?

Sharilyn Wells 3 months ago

Obama had a rule about background checks for mentally ill and Trump rescinded it.

Ken Lassman 3 months ago

What I am hearing the opposition say is that they feel that there needs to be some things tried to restructure the way offenders are handled in Douglas County before we pursue the expensive track of a bigger incarceration facility, and I really appreciate your exploring various scenarios the way you have done here, Chad. It is responsible journalism at its best.

Previous articles have been written about the overcrowding at the jail, leading to mixing violent and nonviolent offenders, sleeping in quarters not designed for this, shipping folks to other venues on the taxpayer's dime, etc. What I think would be very valuable as a next step for you to report on is on how exactly the new mental health facilities would affect these conditions, and whether other measures could be expanded that would relieve some of the reported "crisis" conditions such as community/alternative placement with ankle bracelets for nonviolent offenders, more work release programs, etc. The Justice Matters folks are really adamant about resisting expansion at this point, so it would be interesting to explore this topic in more detail to inform voters about the details about what might be possible in a positive way, along with the potential negative consequences that the jail might be facing if voters choose the path you've so skillfully outlined in this piece.

Thanks again for fleshing out a responsible, expanded discussion of a complex issue. It's exactly what a local news organization can do best and is an example of how it's still important to have a local entity like the JW be part of the community.

Francis Hunt 3 months ago

Sharilyn you say "How about having some compassion and figure out how not to have so many people in jail?"

How about people stop breaking the law?

Kendall Simmons 3 months ago

You mean like my friend who spent two years in jail for not committing a crime but, rather, having a mental illness and there being NO PLACE left for him to go but jail because everything else was full to the brim?

I was there in the courtroom when the judge apologized to him profusely...it was amazing...for having no choice but to sentence him to jail because of the incredible lack of judgement a rookie cop demonstrated by escalating a non-existent negative situation...and the utter lack of mental resources then available to send my friend to.

We do NOT need a bigger jail. We need the mental health crisis center and the transitional housing that goes with it.

Calvin Anders 3 months ago

How about, Francis, we look at ways to reduce crime that do not involve locking up a significantly larger portion of our population than the rest of the industrialized world? How about we stop treating nonviolent drug users like murderers? How about we learn from other countries who have lower rates of violent crime and much lower incarceration rates? We have a system so broken on every level. Building bigger jails just feeds the problem. We need to work on solutions.

Francis Hunt 3 months ago

Yes Calvin, once again let's not put the responsibility on the criminal let's blame everyone else.

Kendall Simmons 3 months ago

You mean like Floyd Bledsoe? 15 years in prison for a rape and murder he did NOT commit? Or William Barnhouse? 25 years years for a crime HE did not commit? Michael Morton? 24 years? Andre Hatchett? 25 years? Timothy Bridges? 25 years? I can keep going...and going...and going.

And, of course, let's not forget the Central Park 5.

Sharilyn Wells 3 months ago

You can put all the people you want to in the jail they are coming back out again.

Francis Hunt 3 months ago

Kendall, what do you have from Lawrence Kansas? Definitely let's not forget the Central Park 5. You make it real hard to take you seriously.

Bonnie Uffman 3 months ago

Francis, I take Kendall Simmons very seriously. Personally, I have a hard time with your "lock 'em up" attitude. That's a pretty cold hard line.

Michael Aldridge 3 months ago

Chad. Thank you for the continued reporting on this. I remain pleased that Douglas County is working a plan that hopefully will help address the need for increased behavioral health services here. I have a couple questions that would be great if you or others can help answer.

Question 1: Since the proposed crisis center has already been reduced in size by 50%, will we have firm plans for the center, including funding amount, by the time we are asked to vote?

Question 2: Will a business plan and sustainability plan for the crisis center be shared prior to the vote? Taxpayers are considering contributing to behavioral health services, with no end date. This is wonderful, and much needed. I'm curious how much the other stakeholders are contributing and what the long term sustainability plan looks like. Perhaps the tax increase doesn't have to exist forever.

Question 3: Regarding the proposed jail expansion, has anyone compared it to other like-sized counties? Included in the comparison, I'm curious how our incarceration rate compares as well as how the behavioral health services we offer compare.

I will close with a comment. The need for increased behavioral health services is not new. This has been a growing problem/need over the the past 14 years or so. The statements from the Commission that their statutory obligation forces them to act on the jail, while at the same time are willing to not address the behavioral health need is concerning. There are hard and soft costs associated with not addressing the behavioral health service needs. Not to mention a moral obligation to do the right thing.

Sharilyn Wells 3 months ago

A question I would like to know is how many have crimes are related to drug addiction alcohol or mental illness?

Steve Jacob 3 months ago

My view, every crime fits one of those.

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