Many residents want to vote separately on jail, mental health projects; there’s a way, but county unlikely to go there

Douglas County Jail

When it comes to your government asking you questions, oftentimes fewer is better. (No, officer, I thought a flame thrower was a legal way to remove snow from the sidewalk.) But there’s a current Douglas County issue where some residents want more questions.

I’m talking about the pending sales tax election for a $44 million jail expansion and an $11 million mental health crisis center. Some members of the public really want to have two questions: one for the jail component and one for the mental health component.

Thus far, it looks like voters will get one all-or-nothing vote. There’s been talk of a special mail-in ballot this spring, but county commissioners will discuss that more at their meeting on Wednesday. The last we heard from the county was that splitting the questions couldn’t happen because the special state legislation allowing for a Douglas County sales tax vote wasn’t written in that manner. Getting state lawmakers to change the legislation at this hour would be too uncertain, county officials have said.

Still, I know I’m getting a question from several residents: Isn’t there some way the county could split this ballot, if it really wanted to? The answer: probably.

photo by: Mike Yoder

Douglas County Jail

Conceptual plans for a behavioral health campus on West Second Street between Alabama and Maine streets were shared Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, with the Douglas County Commission. The plans show a 20,000-square-foot behavioral health crisis intervention center on the left, a transitional home in the center and 10 long-term housing units on the right.

Let’s walk through one scenario that I ran by county officials recently. (Apologies in advance. This scenario is not as fast as a flamethrower on snow.)

• The county estimates it will need $9.1 million to make the annual debt payment and pay for the operating expenses of an expanded Douglas County Jail. The county estimates it will need $5.76 million to make the annual debt payment and pay for the operating expenses of a mental health crisis intervention center. That’s a total of $14.86 million.

• The county estimates a half-cent sales tax increase would generate about $9.7 million a year. That is quite a bit less than the $14.86 million needed for both projects. The difference will be funded through a property tax increase. The county is estimating about a 3.8 mill increase. So, to be clear, the current plan is that both your sales taxes and your property taxes will increase under the county’s current plan. The county has been up front about this, but I think the public is much more aware of the pending sales tax increase than the property tax increase.

• As currently proposed, the county plans to use the sales tax to pay for all the mental health expenses and about $4 million of the annual costs for the jail. The remainder would be paid from property taxes. By doing it this way, the county is able to take advantage of an exemption in the state’s property tax lid law, which means it is not required to put the property tax increase to a public vote. (It also is worth noting the property tax increase won’t happen right away. It will take more than a year for the jail to be built; thus the increased operating expense won’t happen immediately.)

• If the county wants to have a split ballot, however, it could structure the spending differently. It could use the sales tax to pay for the entirety of the jail project. The sales tax is expected to generate enough money to cover both of those expenses, with just a bit to spare. (The extra money could be applied to mental health, if the ballot language is crafted correctly.) As for the mental health component, it would be funded all by property taxes. However, because of state law provisions, a countywide election would be required for the property tax increase. Under that scenario, you get your split ballot. People could vote against one project they don’t like without worrying about killing another project they do like.

County officials I talked with acknowledged such a split ballot probably is possible. They highlighted several potential pitfalls, though.

• Pitfall No. 1: It could be a complicated ballot. It actually could require three questions instead of two. There would be the one sales tax question, but the property tax increase might have to be split into two questions, one for the bonds — i.e., debt payment — and another for the operating expenses. The county wasn’t sure of that, but state law may require it in this case. Voters would need to understand it takes two “yes” votes to approve the mental health project.

• Pitfall No. 2: The timing may be wrong. County Administrator Craig Weinaug told me he was skeptical that the county could get the necessary paperwork processed to put the property tax question on the ballot by this spring. Based on past projects I’ve seen, it seems doable, but the unknown here is whether the mental health center construction would require the use of a Public Building Commission, which would add some time.

County officials don’t want to delay a vote on the jail until November — even though that election likely will have a higher turnout than any special election in the spring. They say a six-month delay could cause the price of the jail expansion to go up by more than $500,000, based on current inflation estimates. But there is a way around that. Have the sales tax vote in the spring, and have the property tax vote later in the year. That, however, likely would delay the start time for the mental health initiative, which would disappoint its advocates.

County commissioners will discuss all of this at their Wednesday evening meeting. If I were betting, I would bet on a spring election with one ballot question. Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman, who chairs the commission, called me as I was finishing this column. She said she strongly favors a one-question scenario based on everything she knows now. A two-question ballot seems more complicated, she said.

I suspect other commissioners will express reservations about a two-question ballot as well. What will be interesting to watch, though, is whether commissioners argue they really have no choice in the matter, or if they give what seems to be the fairly obvious answer: One question is the better political decision. You are making your bet that the jail project will benefit from people who really want the mental health project.

Maybe such a strategy feels funny to some, but it is not a new strategy. When the original funding for the jail was approved in the mid-1990s, it was part of a single sales tax ballot question that was to fund the jail, parks and recreation projects in Lawrence and property tax relief countywide. Throw a lot of things together and hope that a coalition forms has been a longtime political strategy.

But in recent years, that hasn’t been the trend with elections. In 2008 when the city wanted to approve a sales tax for transit and infrastructure, it split the tax into three questions. If you wanted to vote for transit but not infrastructure you could. The city followed the same model in the 2017 sales tax elections. At some point, the Lawrence electorate became an a la carte crowd.

Lawrence voters make up the largest share of Douglas County voters. Whether they can be convinced to abandon their a la carte ways may be a central question in this election.