Douglas County commission agrees to move ahead with $44 million jail expansion design

Douglas County Jail

The Douglas County Commission agreed Wednesday to move ahead with a design for an expansion of the Douglas County Jail that would add 179 beds and cost an estimated $44 million.

Commissioners decided after Undersheriff Gary Bunting presented six different expansion options. Three of those options were those Bunting shared Nov. 8 with commissioners — the least expensive of them would have cost $37.4 million and added 131 beds, while the most expensive would have cost $46 million and added 207 beds. The additional options he presented Wednesday reflected modifications commissioners had requested to the previously presented designs.

The design commissioners unanimously selected was a modified version of the $46 million plan that shaved $2 million from the total cost. This modified version leaves a portion of the jail’s interior undeveloped, with the expectation that it would be converted to a 28-bed cell block later.

What made that option appealing to commissioners was the inclusion of a 14-bed female mental health pod with therapeutic features such as direct sunlight and a courtyard. Such a dedicated female mental health pod was missing in the less expensive options, although each of the plans presented had a 28-bed male mental health pod with those therapeutic features.

In announcing her support for the selected option, Commissioner Nancy Thellman said it avoided unequal treatment of female inmates with mental health concerns. She and other commissioners also said the selected design provided room for expansion to meet future needs with the undeveloped area and an identical wing next to it that will be used for staff training until there is a need to convert it to a cell block.

Commission Chair Mike Gaughan said he too supported the option because of the inclusion of the female mental health pod.

“(This plan) has all the benefits of the initial vision the Sheriff’s Office and the commission had when we began to look at healthy spaces for people with mental illness in the jail,” he said.

Gaughan also noted the design would build a classification pod at the jail, where new inmates would be observed for 72 hours before being assigned to minimum- , medium- or maximum-security pods. The jail currently doesn’t have such a pod, a situation which puts the security of inmates and corrections officers at risk, he said.

Sarah Plinsky, assistant county administrator, said the selected design would require 95 additional employees at the jail and add $6.1 million to the jail’s annual operating cost. Using the 2017 county valuation, 4.66 mills in property tax would need to be levied to support those additional costs, she said.

Any expansion of the jail would require Douglas County voters to approve a bond issue for that purpose. Commissioners are also working to develop plans for a mental health crisis intervention center, which voters would also have to approve. Although the current County Commission has not committed to putting both facilities on the same referendum, the question of how they would be funded has to be addressed before any ballot question is approved because the jail and crisis center could tap into the same funding source.

The county has the authority to ask voters for either a quarter- or half-cent sales tax for the jail expansion, crisis intervention center and mental health programming. A quarter-cent tax would provide $4.86 million annually to help retire debt from mental health services or the construction of either facility, while a half-cent tax would provide $9.72 million annually.

Thellman said the County Commission would receive an update Dec. 13 on the design of the crisis center and services it would need.

Probation oversight changes

In other business, commissioners unanimously voted to remove oversight of Community Corrections from the Douglas County District Court, despite the opposition of District Court Chief Judge Peggy Kittel, and place it under the direct supervision of the County Commission.

Community Corrections provides intensive supervision of felons who are on probation. A former commission passed a 2000 home rule resolution transferring oversight of Community Corrections to the District Court, although the state later required the commission to acknowledge it was ultimately responsible for the department.

The 10 Community Corrections probation officers support the transfer, which would make them eligible for compensation at the county’s higher pay rate. Although the employees are compensated at state court system rates, the Kansas Office of Judicial Administration does not recognize the county’s Community Corrections parole officers as state employees. Plinsky told commissioners that the 10 employees were, therefore, not covered by state work-related liability insurance.

The county does maintain liability insurance on them, Plinsky said. They nonetheless have some liability exposure, because Community Corrections employees are trained in state policies and procedures, rather than those of the county as the county’s insurance policy requires, she said. The change would eliminate that concern, she said.

Kittel said all the District Court judges opposed the transfer of supervision. Judges impose probation terms when they sentence offenders and should retain the oversight needed to ensure their orders are carried out, she said. The transfer potentially could create due process concerns, Kittel said, because probation officers have the right to arrest those under their charge. Under the current supervision system, no such arrest are made unless a District Court judge signs off on a bench warrant, she said. Kittel also argued the District Court was nonpolitical and was, therefore, unswayed by political pressure to be more stringent or lenient when issuing probation.

The move would also complicate coordination of victim restitution and such procedures as the electronic filing of documents, Kittel said.

In voting for the transfer, commissioners said it was important to put employees for whom they were responsible under their supervision. The issues Kittel raised could be addressed through better cooperation between the commission and the court, they said.