Douglas County budget will likely raise taxes; commission plans to fund drug court

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

From left, Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman, Commission Chair Michelle Derusseau and Commission Vice Chair Patrick Kelly discuss the 2020 budget during the commission's meeting on July 10, 2019.

Though Douglas County commissioners have not given final approval to a 2020 budget, they did reach a consensus Wednesday on a plan that would raise the mill levy by 0.429 mills.

If approved, the budget would raise the mill levy from 46.015 to 46.444. That’s a total of roughly $1,068 in annual property taxes for the owner of a $200,000 home — a $10 increase from last year.

Interim County Administrator Sarah Plinsky had proposed what she called an “inflationary increases only” budget that would have held the mill levy flat, based on the increased valuation of properties within the county. She let commissioners decide what additional requests they wanted to fund.

Commission Chair Michelle Derusseau said Wednesday that there was no “fluff” in the budget. Most of the requests the commission is planning to fund are related to public safety or safety net social services, she said.

One of the most costly budget requests this year, however, likely won’t cost taxpayers an extra dime over last year’s budget. The approximately $431,000 request from the district attorney’s office and Criminal Justice Services would create a drug court, which would aim to divert nonviolent drug offenders from jail and offer support for substance use recovery.

That new initiative would have increased the mill levy by 0.3 additional mills; however, the commission’s consensus on Wednesday was to take the money from cuts to the 2019 budget that are intended to debt-fund an expansion of the Douglas County Jail.

During the meeting, Commission Vice Chair Patrick Kelly said it made sense to him to use funds set aside for the jail in order to fund an alternative to incarceration.

Commissioner Nancy Thellman said she’d heard a lot of support for the drug court from community members. She also said the county has taken on a lot of alternatives to incarceration in a short time, and after the drug court gets up and running, it might be a good idea to step back and see how the various programs are working.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman speaks during a discussion on the 2020 budget at the commission’s meeting on July 10, 2019.

As the Journal-World has reported, some jail alternatives that the county has launched or significantly expanded in the past few years include pretrial release, house arrest, electronic monitoring, behavioral health court, a specialized diversion program for women with substance use disorders and more.

Another request that has been a topic of much discussion through the commission’s 26 hours of budget deliberations, Plinsky said, comes from the Lawrence Community Shelter. The shelter, in addition to its standard $115,000 annual funding request, has asked for $181,000 in 2020 in emergency funds as it works to resolve financial issues that have plagued it over the past few years.

Derusseau said she wasn’t comfortable raising the mill levy for what she viewed as a one-time additional expense as the shelter works to become less dependent on the funds it receives from the county and the city of Lawrence. Ultimately, though, those funds will likely contribute to the increased mill levy in the final budget.

Some of the other requests that will probably be included in the 2020 budget:

• An evidence technician and a records clerk for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. Plinsky previously told the Journal-World that the sheriff’s office would need to add those positions once the Lawrence Police Department moves into its new headquarters, as they are currently shared positions. The budget will also likely include $150,819 for two court security deputies.

• About an 87% restoration of a 2019 cut to the Heritage Conservation Council. Last year’s budget cut $115,000 from the agency; the 2020 budget will likely add back $100,000.

• $75,000 for the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority: partial funding to hire a housing case worker, and housing for three additional families in its New Horizons program.

• $20,000 for the Emergency Service Council to serve additional families.

The commission is still waiting on numbers on some capital improvement projects for Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical that could impact the budget.

Commissioners will likely approve the 2020 budget for publication at their next meeting on Wednesday, July 17. Final approval of the budget will come after a public hearing in August.

In other business:

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Roger Boyd, who directs maintenance of the Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve, speaks during a Douglas County Commission meeting on July 10, 2019.

• The commission approved a request from Roger Boyd to allow the Santa Fe Trail Society to construct a trail on the Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve, which is county land, and for the Public Works department to assist in installing a pipe culvert. The trail will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Boyd told commissioners that the trail likely won’t be complete until May 2021.

Related stories

July 1, 2019 — Funding a drug court is the next step for Douglas County’s incarceration alternatives, DA tells commissioners

April 4, 2019 — ‘People’s lives transformed’ in drug court, parole officer tells Douglas County Commission

April 3, 2019 — Douglas County DA supports drug court, encourages more alternatives to incarceration

March 17, 2019 — Some alternatives to incarceration in Douglas County Jail becoming ‘robust,’ leader says

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