Douglas County formally requests court to dismiss jail expansion lawsuit
photo by: Lawrence Journal-World file photo
Douglas County has formally asked the Douglas County District Court to throw out a lawsuit filed by a local activist group that would halt the planned expansion of the county’s jail.
It also requested the court to expedite scheduling of the hearing on the matter to avoid delay on the construction project.
The county announced in a news release Tuesday that its attorney John Bullock had filed its response to a lawsuit filed by Justice Matters on March 16. The request for dismissal follows letters Bullock sent to the group in March where he said the county would seek for the case to be thrown out on “various legal grounds.”
In the suit, Justice Matters argues that Douglas County commissioners are not allowing residents to vote or petition against the plan to fund an expansion of the jail, despite the group’s belief that they have an obligation to do so under state law.
The county’s Tuesday filing asked for the case to be dismissed because the county believes it already has the legal authority to issue bonds for the project through a 1-cent sales tax referendum county voters approved in 1994, according to the court filing, which was provided to the Journal-World by the court.
The language of that referendum said the sales tax could be used “for general government purposes, including the issuance of sales tax revenue and general obligation bonds, and also including … The Expansion and operations of the county jail.” The authority of the referendum is still in effect today and has been used several times to issue bonds without the need for a public vote, the county said in the news release.
“Because the County Commission already has the authority to issue the bonds in question, the Petition fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted and therefore must be dismissed,” the county said in its filing.
The county also requested the expedited scheduling because it believes the lawsuit is “adversely impacting” its ability to make improvements at the jail.
“These improvements should not be delayed any longer than absolutely necessary for the Court to consider and rule upon this motion,” the county said in the filing. “The County therefore respectfully requests an expedited hearing date and briefing schedule, so that this motion can be resolved very promptly.”
Additionally, the county requested the court impose a surety bond from Justice Matters, which the county warned it would pursue for “not less than $3 million” if the group went through with the lawsuit. However, the court filing does not outline a specific dollar amount on the requested surety bond.
The county said in the filing the surety bond is needed because a delay of the expansion project could result in higher construction costs and higher interest rates on the bond market, among other increased expenses, for the county.
“It is unfortunate that, during this challenging time, the county is being forced to divert energies and resources towards a meritless lawsuit designed to substitute Justice Matters’ own agenda for the good faith judgment of the County’s elected officials,” the county said in the news release. “The county maintains hope that Justice Matters will withdraw its lawsuit and focus on the health and safety of our community.”
William Skepnek, an attorney for Justice Matters, previously said in a letter to the county he and Justice Matters did not believe the court would impose the requested surety bond. In that letter Skepnek, again, asked the county to consider a new public vote on the expansion of the jail.
“If the citizenry of Douglas County want a jail expansion it will surely be authorized by the voters in a public contest,” Skepnek said.
Skepnek declined to comment on Tuesday.
The Justice Matters lawsuit is a culmination of a yearslong effort by the group and others to stop the county from expanding the jail to house more inmates. As the Journal-World has reported, county leaders say that the jail is overcrowded, making it unsafe for both staff and inmates; opponents argue that the county needs to try more alternatives to incarceration to lower the jail’s population.
Two local nonprofit organizations, Justice Matters and the Lawrence Sunset Alliance, along with five individuals who reside within the county, are petitioning for an injunction to stop the county from issuing bonds to fund the planned expansion, estimated to cost roughly $29.6 million, plus a separate estimated $1.5 million renovation of the jail’s central heating and cooling plant.
The county had approximately $9 million on hand to go toward the jail, the Journal-World has reported. County staff planned to pursue a bond issue with a 20-year debt service to finance the rest of the estimated $31.1 million total, which is about $22.1 million.
County Administrator Sarah Plinsky previously said that could add more than $1 million of annual debt payments to the county’s budget. For example, she said a $25 million bond issue, spread over a 20-year period, would cost between $1.57 million and $1.88 million per year to pay off.
When asked why the county didn’t use the 1994 referendum for its original jail expansion project in 2018, Plinsky said Tuesday that project was larger and would have needed more tax revenue than what is produced through the 1994 sales tax to pay off the debt service.
Plinsky previously said the 1994 tax generates about $7.2 million for the county each year, half of which — roughly $3.6 million — the county has generally used for paying down debt. Of that $3.6 million, about $1.28 million is currently allocated to pay off existing county debt, leaving about $2.32 million left to fund the jail debt service, according to previous Journal-World reporting.
In 2018, the county estimated the $44 million project would have cost the county about $3 million of annual debt, according to previous Journal-World reporting. It was also paired with a plan to build a behavioral health crisis center, which would have added another $750,000 of debt service, for a total of $3.75 million of annual debt service.
County voters in May 2018 rejected a half-cent sales tax referendum that would have been used to help fund those projects, which led to the county pursuing a smaller expansion.
However, if the county had pursued the current, smaller expansion project from the beginning, it would have likely saved a significant amount of money.
Kevin Rawson, a representative for Turner Construction, previously told the Douglas County Commission that construction costs for such projects have increased between 4-6% on an annual basis in recent years. Under those figures, Plinsky in a Tuesday email estimated that the current jail expansion project would have cost about $3.7 million less in 2018, for an approximate total of $27.4 million.
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Related coverage: Douglas County Jail
• Jan. 16, 2019: Cost estimate for pared-down Douglas County Jail expansion is $23M
• March 3, 2018: Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion