Judge dismisses lawsuit that aimed to stop Douglas County’s plan to expand jail

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo

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

Updated at 4:20 p.m.

A local activist group and others do not have legal standing to challenge Douglas County’s plan to expand its jail, a judge has ruled.

In a Tuesday court filing, Judge James Fleetwood dismissed a lawsuit in Douglas County District Court filed by faith-based activist group Justice Matters and others that aimed to halt the controversial project.

In the suit, Justice Matters and its allies argued 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.

Although the lawsuit identified Justice Matters and others as Douglas County residents and voters, Fleetwood said in the filing that the group’s argument did not sufficiently establish that the expansion project causes injury specific to them, but rather an injury “that they may share with the community in general.”

“Petitioners fail to allege any interest in the subject matter of this litigation specific and peculiar to themselves,” Fleetwood wrote. “This is fatal to their claim for relief.”

Fleetwood also said the group lacked standing to block the project because the county did not levy a new tax to fund it.

William Skepnek, attorney for Justice Matters and others, said in an email to the Journal-World that the dismissal means Fleetwood has given the county “unlimited power” to issue bonds to debt finance projects.

Bullock said in an emailed statement to the Journal-World that the county appreciates the court’s consideration of the legal issues involved in the case.

“Today’s ruling adopts the County’s legal arguments in their entirety,” Bullock said in the statement. “The Senior Judge found that Douglas County ‘clearly and presently’ has authority to issue sales tax and general revenue bonds based upon passage of the 1994 ballot measure. The Court agreed with the County that it is not necessary for Douglas County to provide ‘yet another additional ballot question or notice of intent to exercise such authority.'”

The lawsuit was 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 have said 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, were 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, the reality of the project has changed since the coronavirus pandemic began earlier this year. The jail has seen a significant drop in inmates in recent months, and the county will likely see a decline in sales tax revenues that would be used to pay for the project.

Additionally, the county believes it is facing a looming inmate population crisis. The county expects to see an increase in arrests as more restaurants and bars begin to reopen and many people return to work. But the facility has less room to house inmates as the jail leaders rearranged the facility’s configuration to make sure the inmates are safe from contracting the virus. To address the looming crisis, county commissioners have called on the criminal justice leaders to find new ways to reduce the amount of people they are booking into the jail.

While the commissioners in January approved a jail expansion project to address overcrowding, Criminal Justice Coordinator Mike Brouwer said the project was irrelevant to current issues because expansion could not happen quickly enough to help. If solutions are found to address current issues, the county’s plan for expanding the jail may no longer be needed, Commissioner Nancy Thellman said last week.

Related coverage: Douglas County Jail lawsuit

April 22, 2020: In court filing, Justice Matters attorney says 1994 referendum shouldn’t give county ‘carte blanche’ on financing projects

April 15, 2020: Court sets deadlines for next responses in Douglas County jail expansion lawsuit

April 10, 2020: Douglas County District Court brings in outside judge to preside over jail expansion lawsuit

April 7, 2020: Douglas County formally requests court to dismiss jail expansion lawsuit

April 6, 2020: Douglas County warned activist group of $3 million surety bond if it filed lawsuit challenging jail expansion

March 16, 2020: Douglas County Commission illegally blocking vote, petition against jail expansion funding, legal action alleges

Related coverage: Douglas County Jail inmate population crisis

• June 17, 2020 — Douglas County commissioners say they also need state lawmakers to help address jail population issues

• June 10, 2020 — As jail faces looming inmate population crisis, criminal justice leaders say they don’t have many options left to decrease usage

• June 9, 2020 — Local criminal justice leader says COVID-19 could cause a jail population crisis

• June 3, 2020 — Noting change in circumstances, Douglas County Commission wants new discussions on plan to expand jail

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