Douglas County expects to know jail expansion’s effect on operating costs by the end of the month

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

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

Douglas County does not yet know how a new plan to expand its jail will affect the annual operating costs of the facility.

But county staff hopes to have an idea by the end of the month, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky recently told the Journal-World.

“I’m hoping to have some round estimates for that before a (County) Commission conversation later in January,” Plinsky said. “But I’m not there yet.”

However, faith-based social activist group Justice Matters, which has long opposed the expansion project, believes the county needs to be more upfront about how the project will affect the county’s finances.

While the official operating cost is not known, Plinsky said it will likely be an increase to the jail’s budget. But she noted that the expected cost will be less than the county originally anticipated for an earlier version of the jail expansion.

For years, the county has been exploring an expansion of the jail to address overcrowding of inmates in the facility. Because of the overcrowding, the county has spent millions of dollars to house inmates in other counties’ jails. According to weekly jail statistics, the county has housed between 40 and 60 inmates in other counties’ facilities on a daily basis since February 2019.

In 2018, when the county proposed a $44 million expansion plan that would have added 178 beds to the facility, the county expected the plan to increase operating costs for the jail between $7 million and $8 million. But Douglas County residents voted down the plan, which was known as Prop 1, and that led to the county exploring other expansion plans.

Plinsky said the costs for the current, scaled-down expansion plan — which county officials announced in December — would likely be less than that $7 million to $8 million cost increase. The $29.6 million plan calls for the construction of a four-story tower on the south side of the facility, which could add up to 112 beds.

“The number of beds (has) changed, so that means the number of staff to support those beds (has changed),” she said.

Plinsky said that the funding for the operating cost increases might need to come from budget cuts or from an increase to the county’s property tax mill levy. Those decisions would be made by the County Commission, she said.

But Plinsky noted the county’s operating costs for the jail would be partially offset by reducing the amount it spends on housing inmates outside of the county. She said the county spends about $1 million to do that.

The Rev. Joanna Harader, of Justice Matters, said the organization believes the county needs to do a better job of making the public aware of how much the project will cost taxpayers. She also argues the county residents should be able to vote on a proposed plan again.

“In addition to being upfront about the full costs of jail expansion, we believe the county should be clear and honest about how both the construction and increased operating costs would be funded,” Harader said. “Considering that these costs will be substantial, Douglas County taxpayers should have an opportunity to vote on the proposed expenditures and funding mechanisms.”

It may not be much longer before the operating cost is publicly known. Karrey Britt, a spokeswoman for the county, said the County Commission is expected to discuss the operating cost of the expansion during a public commission meeting later this month. The County Commission has meetings scheduled for Jan. 8, 15, 22, and 29.

Along with the operating costs discussion, the County Commission is also expected to determine how it will finance the expansion.

Plinsky previously told the Journal-World that the county will likely pay a portion of costs immediately and then take on debt to finance the rest. How much the county will pay up front and how much it will finance with debt will be decided by the County Commission, she said.

But the county won’t need a public vote to take on debt for the current project, Plinsky said. In December 2018, officials said the county would use authority it gained through a sales tax vote in the 1990s to finance the project.

The referendum language voters approved in 1994 specifically authorizes use of the county’s 1-cent sales tax revenue for jail improvements. Plinsky told the Journal-World recently that it is still the county’s plan to use the authority for the project.

The county budgeted to receive about $7.2 million from the sales tax in 2020, she said. Half of that revenue, about $3.6 million, is placed in the county’s debt service fund, which could be put toward debt financing for the jail each year.

Plinsky noted the debt service fund provides money for the county to pay off other ongoing debt-financed projects, so how much of that $3.6 million will be used for the jail expansion is not yet known.

“We won’t need the full $3.6 million for the debt service for the jail expansion,” she said. “We’re working with bond counsel and a financial advisor to get an estimate … but we aren’t going to need all of that money to finance (the jail).”

Related coverage

Dec. 18, 2019: Expansion of Douglas County Jail expected to cost nearly $30 million; construction could start in early 2020

Dec. 15, 2019: With alternative programs in place, Douglas County Jail still overpopulated with at least 40 inmates housed out of the county

Nov. 27, 2019: Douglas County commissioners allow staff to study alternatives for portion of jail expansion project

June 12, 2019: Douglas County Commission approves construction managers for jail expansion, behavioral health housing

Feb. 20, 2019: Douglas County commissioners direct staff to proceed with jail expansion design

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