Douglas County Commission to consider authorizing controversial jail expansion project
photo by: Journal-World File Photo
The Douglas County Commission on Wednesday will consider authorizing a nearly $30 million expansion of its jail — a project that has long been controversial.
But how the commissioners will vote during the meeting is still up in the air. All three — Patrick Kelly, Michelle Derusseau and Nancy Thellman — told the Journal-World Tuesday that they would listen to all the facts about the project and all the comments from the public before making a final decision.
Thellman said she expects there will be many Douglas County residents who will want to voice their thoughts on the project, including those who have long opposed it.
“We’re probably going to have a packed house and a difficult meeting tomorrow night,” Thellman said Tuesday. “That’s what I intend to do; to come in and listen to everyone who has the time and energy to get there and make a public comment.”
Prior to the regular meeting, the commissioners will meet for a work session where county staff is expected to present the full details of the project. Kelly, who is the chair of the commission, said he hopes those who are interested in the project will attend the work session to learn more about it.
The county has been working for years to expand the jail to address persistent overcrowding at the facility. As of Friday, the jail had 40 inmates being housed outside of Douglas County, according to weekly jail statistics.
In May 2018, Douglas County voters rejected a countywide half-cent sales tax increase that would have funded a $44 million expansion of the county jail. That larger iteration of the project would have added 178 beds.
The current iteration of the project — which is expected to cost about $29.6 million — would provide between 84 and 112 new beds and does not require voter approval.
But as the county has inched closer to finalizing the project in recent months, groups and county residents who oppose the expansion of the jail have expressed concerns about it, with some questioning the ethics of the county’s plan to fund the project using a sales tax voters approved 25 years ago.
Last week, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said 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.
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 previously told the Journal-World. 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.
The expansion project itself would not increase taxes for county residents. But the extra costs of operating an expanded jail could spur county leaders to raise taxes.
On Tuesday, Plinsky told the Journal-World that the expansion would increase the jail’s operating cost by $6 million, but would be subsidized by $2.4 million worth of budget cuts the county made in 2019 and 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, she said.
Plinsky previously told the Journal-World the county would either need to raise taxes or make cuts elsewhere in the budget to cover the extra operating costs.
The County Commission will meet at 4 and 5:30 p.m. for its work session and regular meeting, respectively, Wednesday at the county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St. Full agendas are available online at douglascountyks.org.
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