In court filing, Justice Matters attorney says 1994 referendum shouldn’t give county ‘carte blanche’ on financing projects

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Jail is shown in this file photo from February 2015.

An attorney for a local activist group is arguing that Douglas County’s use of a 1994 sales tax referendum to expand the county jail without a public vote would give the county the ability to debt-finance projects whenever it wants.

William Skepnek, an attorney for Justice Matters, said in a court filing Tuesday that the county’s belief in that authority is “frankly fantastical.”

Skepnek made the argument in his response to the county’s request to have the group’s lawsuit against the jail expansion dismissed. The county’s argument for dismissal is that the 1994 vote provides the county legal grounds to issue bonds to fund part of the $31.1 million jail project.

But Skepnek said that the county’s request for dismissal was without merit and should be denied, noting that the county first failed to get residents’ approval in 2018 for bonding authority before pursuing use of the 1994 referendum. He also argued that the 1994 referendum should not give the county the ability to issue bonds for a project many years in the future.

“There is no reasonable basis for believing that those (who voted to approve the 1994 referendum) anticipated or believed that the election outcome would authorize … bonds to be issued 26 years, or 30 years, or even 50 years into the future,” Skepnek said in the filing. “Under the County’s theory, the 1994 election gave all future county commissions a carte blanche to finance any future project, however popular or unpopular.”

In the suit, Justice Matters and its allies argue 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 the county has an obligation to do so under state law.

John Bullock, an attorney for the county, filed a response to the suit asking for dismissal of the case because the county believes it has the authority to issue bonds for the project through the 1-cent sales tax referendum that county voters approved in 1994.

The lawsuit is a culmination of a yearslong effort by Justice Matters 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.

Justice Matters and another local nonprofit organization, Lawrence Sunset Alliance, along with five county residents, 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.

Additionally, the county said it expected the expansion to increase the jail’s operating cost by $6 million, which would be subsidized by $2.4 million worth of budget cuts the county made in 2019 and by saving about $1 million each year from no longer housing inmates out of the county. That would leave the county with a $2.6 million hole to fill through either making more cuts to the budget or raising local property taxes.

The jail currently has 186 beds for inmates, but the county wants to add up to another 112 beds.

However, during the coronavirus pandemic and state stay-at-home orders, the county jail’s inmate population has decreased significantly.

The jail’s population has fallen to 129 inmates, with another six inmates housed out of county and another two listed as temporarily out, according to statistics on the jail’s website Wednesday morning. Prior to the stay-at-home orders in March, the jail housed 176 inmates, with 25 housed out of county, according to the jail’s March 13 statistics.

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Oct. 17, 2018: County Commission directs staff, sheriff’s office to develop $3 million jail expansion plan

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May 15, 2018: Douglas County voters reject controversial countywide sales tax; leaders say jail project will proceed after public input

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