New poll shows countywide sales tax vote for jail, mental health projects very close

photo by: Mike Yoder

Douglas County Jail

Heated and close: That seems to be a good way to describe the election for a new countywide sales tax to fund a jail expansion and mental health programs. A new poll provides more insight on just how close.

The Journal-World has partnered with Google Surveys to conduct an online poll of registered Douglas County voters who intend to vote in the current half-cent sales tax election. The poll found that the yes supporters may have a slight lead, but the number of undecided voters is still so large that the election easily could swing either way.

The poll — which ran from Wednesday through Monday — found:

• 37.3 percent of respondents plan to vote yes

• 35.5 percent of respondents plan to vote no

• 27.1 percent of respondents are undecided.

Interestingly, we asked the people who said they were going to vote no whether they were doing so primarily because they thought taxes were too high. Only 9.1 percent of respondents said that was their driving force.

The poll queried just more than 1,800 people who said they were registered Douglas County voters and plan to vote in the election. Responses were gathered from a random sample of users of LJWorld.com, who were asked to answer a poll question as they clicked to read an article.

A particularly interesting finding from the poll results is the popularity of a mental health crisis center versus how lukewarm the public is about a jail expansion. The poll asked whether people supported increasing the sales tax to build and operate a mental health crisis center. The results:

• 46.7 percent said they “strongly supported” a crisis center.

• 25 percent said they “supported” a crisis center.

• 4 percent said they “oppose” a crisis center.

• 3.4 percent said they “strongly oppose” a crisis center.

• 20.9 percent were undecided on the issue.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the idea of a $44 million expansion of the Douglas County Jail isn’t as popular. It doesn’t take a political scientist to understand a mental health treatment center evokes a different set of emotions than a jail. Here are the results to the question whether people would support increasing the sales tax to fund a jail expansion and additional operating costs for the jail:

• 15.5 percent said they “strongly supported” jail expansion.

• 15.3 percent said they “support” jail expansion.

• 22.2 percent said they “strongly oppose” jail expansion.

• 15.6 percent said they “oppose” jail expansion.

• 31.4 percent were undecided on the issue.

If you are calculating at home, I’ll save you the trouble of getting out the abacus: A mental health only election would be at 71.7 percent yes and 7.7 percent no, with the balance undecided. That is basically a slam dunk election win.

A jail only election would be at 30.8 percent yes and 37.8 percent no, with the balance undecided. I wouldn’t call that a surefire loss, but such an election would have to dig itself out of a hole.

If these numbers are somewhat accurate, they highlight the political wisdom of putting both of these questions on one ballot. It certainly gives the jail project a better chance of winning.

But these numbers also could be pretty important if the sales tax election fails. As we have reported a few times now — most recently in Elvyn Jones’ fact-check article that published in Tuesday’s newspaper — the county can put another sales tax question on a future ballot if this one fails. That future sales tax question could be just a mental health-only sales tax. It would provide no direct funding for a jail expansion. The poll numbers indicate such a sales tax would have a pretty high chance of approval.

County officials have not highlighted that possibility at all, even in their nonpartisan, informational flyers that raised the question of what would happen if the sales tax vote fails. But County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman did acknowledge to Jones this week that the idea of a second sales tax question was a “conversation we’ll have to have” if the current referendum fails.

Such a mental health sales tax would free up about $4 million to $5 million in property tax money that could be used for a phased jail expansion, which could lessen the need for county commissioners to make painful budget cuts or raise property taxes. (They can only raise property taxes so much because of the state’s debt lid law.) For more on all of that, see this article.

But county commissioners are in no way obligated to put another sales tax question on a future ballot. What would they actually do? It’s quite the guessing game for undecided voters to play.

As for questions you may have about the usefulness of our Google Survey polls, you’ll each have to figure that out on your own. I’ve been pleased that past polls have been fairly accurate in projecting election results. In the presidential election our Google Survey predicted Clinton would win the Douglas County vote with 62 percent of the vote. She received 61 percent. Senate candidate Patrick Wiesner was projected to receive 62 percent of the Douglas County vote. He received 60 percent. Congressional candidate Britani Potter was projected to receive 61 percent of the Douglas County vote. She received 52 percent. So, not perfect, but not bad.