Opponents question ethics of Douglas County’s plan to finance jail expansion project
photo by: Dylan Lysen
Douglas County may have the legal authority to use a sales tax approved by voters in 1994 to finance a nearly $30 million expansion of its jail, but that doesn’t mean it’s ethical, community activists argued on Wednesday.
Joanna Harader, a member of the faith-based social activist group Justice Matters, told the Douglas County Commission during its weekly meeting that she believes the county should again allow residents to vote on whether the planned expansion of the jail should be authorized.
Douglas County residents rejected a similar — but larger — expansion project in May 2018, voting down a proposed half-cent sales tax increase in a referendum.
“You’re being instructed by staff to use a vote from 25 years ago to fund a project that Douglas County citizens voted not to fund 20 months ago,” Harader told the commissioners.
Harader and others opposed to the expansion of the Douglas County Jail made their comments to the commission after County Administrator Sarah Plinsky explained how county staff proposes financing the $29.6 million expansion project. The proposed funding method would involve using funds generated through a one-cent sales tax that voters approved in 1994 and that is still in effect today. The wording of that sales tax referendum said the revenue could be used for “the expansion and operations of the county jail,” among other things.
Plinsky said that 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.
To finance the expansion project, Plinsky said the county has up to $9 million in cash on hand that can initially be put toward the costs. That cash is also expected to fund the separate $1.5 million renovation of the jail’s central heating and cooling plant. The total estimated cost of the main jail expansion project and the plant renovation is $31.1 million.
Commissioners will determine how much of the $9 million will go toward the projects, Plinsky told the Journal-World Tuesday. Once that decision is made, county staff proposes pursuing a bond issue with a 20-year debt service to finance the rest.
Plinsky 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.
In his argument against the expansion, Patrick Wilbur, of the political advocacy group Lawrence Sunset Alliance, told the commissioners that they should “pump the brakes” and hold public information sessions on the project before giving final approval. Like Justice Matters’ Harader, he said county residents should have a say at the ballot box.
“It would be a bad idea for you guys to blindside people with a tax increase for the next couple of decades,” he said. “The ethical path forward is to put it on the ballot, educate people and let people decide with their vote again.”
The expansion project itself would not increase taxes for county residents, Plinsky told the Journal-World. The county currently spends about $1.28 million dollars of sales tax revenue per year to pay debts. Even with the extra $1.57 million to $1.88 million per year that a $25 million bond issue would add, the county’s annual debt payments would still be within the amount that the one-cent sales tax raises, Plinsky said.
However, the extra costs of operating an expanded jail could spur county leaders to raise taxes. Plinsky previously told the Journal-World she expects the annual operating costs to increase by millions of dollars, which would require the county to either raise taxes or make cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Plinsky told the Journal-World after the meeting Wednesday that she plans to have an estimate of the operating cost for the Jan. 29 meeting, when the commissioners are expected to consider authorizing the expansion project.
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