Looking at what may be next now that voters have rejected new sales tax for jail, mental health improvements

It has been almost a week since the countywide sales tax election was rejected by voters 53 percent to 47 percent. I figure that is long enough for the aspirin and the throat lozenge to have kicked in. (It was the type of campaign where both sides could benefit from those medicines.) So, let’s look at some of the issues that remain.

• The county probably needs to buy itself some time, and it likely can do that with temporary jail units. Just like how school districts buy themselves some time with portable classrooms, there are similar types of structures available for jails. As we reported in November, the county has already been investigating the possibilities. The county needs no voter approval to do this, and the spending isn’t subject to the state’s property tax debt lid, as long as the county leases the temporary units. The county, though, may not need to raise property taxes much to do this. Instead it could use a good portion of the approximately $1.5 million it spends annually to house inmates in other county jails to pay for the temporary units.

• With some time bought, the county can figure out another referendum question to ask voters, perhaps as soon as November. If the idea of another election sounds odd, it shouldn’t. Elections — particularly referendums — are how governments and their constituents negotiate. Probably the simplest thing for the county to do is put another sales tax referendum on the ballot. Keep the mental health proposal in place because it was clearly popular with the electorate. Instead of a $44 million jail expansion, though, propose a $22 million jail expansion. Use the difference to lower the county’s property tax mill levy. The county only has to convince a little more than 6 percent of the voters to change their votes. This might do it. Yes, jail proponents would have to hold their noses because they would believe they’re not doing enough to fix the jail. Jail No folks would have to hold their noses because they would believe the county isn’t doing enough to reduce incarceration rates. That’s how compromise works: There is a lot of nose holding.

• Probably the clearest thing to emerge from the election is that a sizable number of voters are ready to give the county a new annual revenue stream of about $10 million. That’s about how much the half-cent sales tax would generate each year. But, those voters are interested in the money being used on mental health a lot more than on jails. Human nature being what it is, expect the county to figure out how to take advantage of $10 million worth of generosity, one way or another. Even if new sales tax revenues can only be used for mental health, once you defined “mental health,” there is a lot of spending in the county’s property tax-funded budget that could be shifted over to the new sales tax revenue stream. That would take pressure off the county’s budget in general, which could be helpful as the county seeks another solution on the jail. It certainly would be less painful than the county simply forgoing the new revenue and cutting $5 million to $10 million of existing spending out of the county budget. A few fiscal conservatives would applaud that approach, but that’s not the dominant political philosophy in Douglas County. If you start cutting existing services, it likely will produce a lot of political losers.

• Speaking of politics, the political dynamic is going to change. Now that Mike Gaughan has said he won’t run for re-election, expect to start seeing candidates emerge to fill his seat. How many candidates do you think are going to run a campaign that says “I’m going to cut your social services to pay for a jail expansion”? I’m guessing not very many. Candidates likely are going to be motivated to find a different solution. While just one of the three County Commission seats is up for election, don’t discount what a change in the dynamic might produce.

• If the county does put another referendum on the ballot, it will be interesting to see if it changes its political tactics. The county went across the grain in a few regards. Voters seem to like choices, but the county used a strategy that tried to make voters think they had very few, i.e., you are not voting on whether to expand the jail, only how to pay for it. That turned a lot of people off. So too did the decision to not put a dollar figure in the actual ballot language. The county wanted to give itself flexibility in how much debt it could issue, so it left a specific dollar figure out of the election question. That is an example of really pedaling uphill at a time when the public is already distrustful of government.

• Some people who want more mental health and less jail may be tempted to put their faith in the Justice Matters group to force a solution upon the county. That could be risky. Justice Matters spent a lot of time saying there is a better way, but then when it unveiled its plan that included a petition to force the county to have an election to raise property taxes to pay for mental health, the group had failed to recognize that voters can’t raise property taxes in November and start collecting them in January 2019. The new revenues wouldn’t become available until about 2020. Based on what I’ve heard, that cost Justice Matters some credibility with some voters. I don’t think the county is viewing the most recent election results as a sign that Justice Matters gained some sort of mandate.


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