Get ready to vote: Questions and answers on the Douglas County half-cent sales tax ballot question

The Douglas County Commission meets in the historic courtroom on the second floor of the county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

After months of discussion and debate, voting soon will begin on a question that will decided the fate of a proposed $44 million jail expansion and an $11 million behavioral health campus. Plus, it also will decide your future sales tax rate.

Douglas County registered voters should start receiving mail-in ballots for the half-cent sales tax referendum on Wednesday. The new sales tax was proposed by the County Commission in January to fund the jail and mental health care improvements.

Below is a list of questions and answers about the referendum, culled from the Journal-World’s past coverage of the issues.

The ballot

Q: In basic terms, what will county voters be asked to approve?

A: Think of the ballot as having three parts. First, the county is asking for your permission to create a new half-cent sales tax that will be charged on taxable purchases in Douglas County. State law requires voter approval before the sales tax can be created. Second, the county is asking for your permission to issue new debt, i.e. bonds. State law also requires voter approval for that to happen. Third, the ballot describes, in general terms, what the new sales tax money and new debt will be used to pay for. The money would be used to both build and operate an expansion of the Douglas County Jail and both build and operate new facilities that provide mental health care services.

Q: What is the actual ballot language?

A: The ballot language reads:

Shall the following be adopted?

Shall Douglas County, Kansas (the “County”), be authorized to: (1) impose a one-half percent (1/2 %) countywide retailers’ sales tax (the “Sales Tax”) for the purpose of financing the cost to: (a) construct, furnish and equip County mental health and support facilities and pay operating expenses thereof; and (b) construct, furnish and equip additions and improvements to the County’s jail and detention facilities and pay operating expenses thereof (collectively the “Project”), collection of such Sales Tax to commence on October 1, 2018, or as soon thereafter as permitted by law; and (2) issue sales tax/general obligation bonds (the “Bonds”) of the County to pay all or a portion of the capital costs of the Project, related interest costs during construction and issuance costs; provided that the County receive, prior to the issuance of the Bonds, a comprehensive feasibility study that indicates the revenues received from the Sales Tax will be sufficient to retire the Bonds without the necessity of levying any ad valorem taxation; all pursuant to the authority of K.S.A. 12-187 et seq., as amended?

Q: What is the referendum timeline?

A: Ballots will be mailed Tuesday. Unregistered voters have until Tuesday to register for the referendum.

Ballots will be counted Tuesday, May 15. Those ballots returned to the Douglas County Clerk’s Office by noon of that day will be counted. You can either return the ballots in person or mail them back before the deadline. The ballot will include instructions.

Why are voters being asked to consider the jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives on the same ballot?

A: County commissioners decided to structure the ballot that way, and state law allows for it. County commissioners say the county has been studying both needs for nearly five years, and the half-cent sales tax offered the most feasible way to fund both projects. Requiring one vote that covers both the jail and mental health components, however, has been a major complaint of opponents, who say voters should be able to pick and choose what they want to support.

Q: It doesn’t appear there are any dollar amounts listed in the ballot language. Why is that? Such debt caps were included in bond language for the 2010 Lawrence Public Library expansion and the 2014 referendum for the proposed new Lawrence police headquarters.

A: While the ballot does ask for voter approval to issue bonds, it does not list the maximum amount of bonds that the county would issue. Instead, the ballot says a feasibility study would be conducted that would determine the maximum amount of bonds the sales tax revenues could reasonably be expected to support. Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said the bond figures weren’t listed in the language because the county only had estimates of the capital costs, not final figures. The wording gives the county flexibility should the cost of either project exceed those estimates, he said. The lack of dollar figures in the ballot language has been a concern of opponents, who have said it gives the county too much flexibility to spend amounts that are different than what has been proposed.

Q: Why did the county opt for a mail-in ballot instead of saving money by scheduling the referendum during the August primary or November general election?

A: County commissioners said a delay until November would add $500,000 to the cost of the jail expansion, due to increasing construction costs and other factors. They also said they wanted to address urgent needs at the jail as soon as possible.

Q: What kind of voter turnout can be expected in the referendum?

A: Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew predicts about 35 percent of the nearly 63,000 mailed ballots will be returned. That was the return percentage last spring for the Lawrence school district’s bond election, which was also a mail ballot. “There’s quite a bit of activity for this, so it might be more,” he said.

Q: How much will the mail-in referendum cost the county?

A: Shew said the mail-ballot referendum would cost about $130,000, but that he wouldn’t know the total until it was learned how much return postage for the ballots would cost the county.

Sales tax

Q: Does the sales tax have a sunset provision?

A: No. County officials say the need for additional mental health services is ongoing.

Q: Will cities get a share of the sales tax as they do with the county’s current 1-cent sales tax?

A: No. At the county’s request, the Kansas Legislature amended K.S.A. 12-187 to allow the county to put a half-cent sales tax before voters to be used for jail construction and operation, mental health facilities and operations and courthouse improvements. K.S.A. 12-187 does not require counties to share sales tax revenue with their municipalities.

Q: When would the sales tax become effective if approved?

A: Oct. 1, 2018.

Q: What would sales tax rates be in the county if the referendum is approved?

A: On Oct. 1, the sales tax per $1 would be 9.25 cents in Baldwin City, 9.75 cents in Eudora, 9.75 cents in Lecompton, 9.55 cents in Lawrence and 7.5 cents in rural Douglas County.

Q: How much revenue would the sales tax raise?

A: It is estimated, based on current retail sales in the county, the sales tax would raise $9.8 million annually.

Q: How would the sales tax revenue be split among the jail and behavioral health needs?

A: That is not explained in the referendum’s ballot language. Instead, county officials have offered estimates based on how the plans are currently proposed. County officials estimate the mental health project would require 20 annual payments of $750,000 annually to pay off bonded debt for the $11 million behavioral health campus. The county also has said the sales tax would provide $5.1 million in operating revenues for behavioral health services, both at the new campus and countywide. The sales tax also would provide about $1 million for additional operational costs at the expanded jail. That would leave $2.95 million in sales tax money that could be used for annual payments on a 20-year jail expansion bond.

Q: What will the county do if the sales tax fails?

A: It is uncertain. All three county commissioners have stated they would work to create a plan to expand the jail, even if the sales tax is defeated. That plan could involve budget cuts, additional property taxes, and other budgetary adjustments, but those details wouldn’t be known until the county approved its budget in August 2018. County commissioners, though, have conceded the county would not have the necessary funds in the 2019 budget to fund the entire $44 million jail expansion plan. Any expansion would have to occur incrementally, they have said. What would happen in future years is even less certain because one of the three seats on the commission is up for election in November 2018. The other two seats are up for election in November 2020. In addition, even if the current sales tax proposal fails, the county still would have the legal authority to modify its proposal and ask voters to consider a different sales tax question.

Jail expansion

Q: Why does the county want to expand the jail?

A: When the jail was built in the late-1990s, it was projected to reach capacity in 2010. The jail’s average daily population started exceeding its 186-bed capacity in 2014 and now exceeds its capacity by 50 to 80 inmates daily.

Q: How many beds would the jail expansion add?

A: The expansion would add 179 beds to the jail. It is designed to meet the needs of the county for the next 20 years, based on current growth estimates.

Q: Has the county implemented any programs aimed at reducing the number of people who are required to be in jail?

A: Yes. In 2017, the county introduced a number of reforms that have diverted about 150 inmates daily from the jail. From 100 to 110 inmates daily are diverted through the pretrial release program, which releases nonviolent offenders from the jail with no bail. About 15 inmates have been released through the behavioral health court, in which offenders can have their charges dropped if they complete court-ordered treatment programs. About 25 more inmates in the county jail have been released through the home arrest program with electronic monitoring.

The District Attorney’s Office and DCCCA are currently starting a pilot program, which targets repeat female nonviolent offenders with a history of substance abuse. The program looks to divert eight or nine women this year from jail into treatment and services offered by multiple agencies.

County officials say they will continue to look for additional ways to reduce the jail’s population without increasing the risk of public safety. However, they maintain new programs will only reduce the number of inmates by a limited amount, such as the program targeting female substance-abuse offenders.

Opponents of the sales tax have argued county leaders haven’t given the current programs enough time to fully work, haven’t adequately investigated other jail diversion programs, and also have not adequately studied the causes behind the rising jail populations.

Q: How much more will it cost the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to operate the expanded jail?

A: Eventually, the jail’s operating budget will need to increase by about $6 million. The sheriff’s office has said it would take about three years to complete the expansion after a yes vote on the referendum. Operational costs and staff will increase as new facilities are available during that three-year span and total $6.1 million when the expansion is completed. That total includes salaries for an additional 95 correctional officers.

Q: Will property taxes increase to pay for the jail expansion?

A: Yes. If approved, the additional half-cent in sales tax provides revenue for annual debt payments for the expansion and $1 million for the jail’s increased operating cost. The remaining $5.1 million in added annual operating costs would be paid for with revenue from property taxes.

Q: Is the county statutorily obligated to expand the jail?

A: The county is required to ensure that the jail meets a variety of health, safety, welfare and other conditions spelled out in both state and federal law. All three county commissioners have expressed concern that the current jail is either at or near the point where it does not meet those state or federal standards. However, there has been no legal finding by a court or regulatory agency that says the jail is out of compliance, nor one that mandates the jail be expanded.

Q: What would the jail expansion include?

A: The jail expansion would:

• Build a new work release/re-entry pod that would house 14 female inmates and 28 male inmates.

• Build a new ground-floor special-needs pod with 10 beds for female inmates and 28 beds for male inmates. Its design would provide direct sunlight and access to open green space as therapeutic measures for those with mental illness housed in the pod.

• Build two preclassification pods — a 14-bed pod for female inmates and a 28-bed pod for male inmates. Preclassification pods are common in modern jails and provide a place where newly booked inmates can be observed for 72 hours before being assigned to a pod of the appropriate security level.

• Build a double-roofed tower opposite the jail’s main entry. The tower would look like those towers now at the end of the jail’s southwest and northeast wings. The tower would have a basement for storage and a first floor that would be left unfinished inside and used for storage and training until needed for future capacity. The tower’s second story would house a two-level, 28-bed medium security pod, and a two-level, 28-bed minimum security pod, both of which would house male inmates.

• Provide a new sally port in which law enforcement officers drop off or pick up inmates, as well as a new medical unit. The new facilities are meant to provide greater efficiency with the addition of the preclassification pods.

In addition, the jail expansion would allow:

• The current 46-bed male work release/re-entry pod to be used as a 46-bed male minimum security pod.

• That would, in turn, allow a current 28-bed male minimum security pod to be used as a 28-bed female minimum security pod.

With that change, the current 28-bed female pod would be used to house 28 medium- and maximum-security female inmates.

Behavioral health campus and services

Q: Where would the behavioral health campus be located?

A: The campus would be built on the north side of West Second Street in Lawrence, across from the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center building. The site in the 1000 block of West Second Street is just northeast of Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

Q: What would be built on the campus?

A: The campus would include a behavioral health crisis center, a transitional group home and eight to 10 apartments. The housing units would be reserved for those with behavioral health issues.

Q: What would the behavioral health crisis center include?

A: The 20,000-square-foot crisis center would include an eight-bed crisis treatment unit, an observational relaxation room with recliners, a six-bed sobering room and a six-bed detoxification unit.

Q: What additional behavioral health services would the $5.1 million in sales tax revenue provide?

A: In addition to those that support the campus, funded programs would include a 24-hour crisis line and a Zero Suicide initiative in partnership with Headquarters Inc., a countywide mobile behavioral health crisis response team, an opioid crisis summit and the expansion of the WRAP mental health services available in the Lawrence school district, which the county subsidizes, to the Baldwin City and Eudora school districts.