Douglas County Commission to consider formally abandoning controversial jail expansion project
photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo
About eight months after the Douglas County Commission approved a controversial expansion of its jail facility, the commissioners are now on the verge of formally abandoning the plan.
The County Commission on Wednesday will consider repealing a resolution it approved in January that authorized a $29.6 million jail expansion project, which would have add up to 112 new beds to the 186-bed facility.
The consideration comes months after the commissioners asked to reexamine the project because of changes that have occurred amid the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky recently said the county could consider a remodeling of the facility, without expanding its footprint, to address inmate crowding issues.
In a memo to commissioners, Plinsky said the county has not conducted any design or construction work on the project since the commissioners asked to reexamine it in June. She said with the consideration of repealing the resolution, county staff is asking for formal direction on the project.
When asked on Friday what repealing of the resolution would do, Plinsky said it would mean the “project will not proceed.”
The county has for years been working toward expanding the facility. First it proposed a $44 million expansion project in 2018, but it was voted down by county residents. Without the public’s approval, the county moved to a smaller version of the expansion project, despite many residents voicing their opposition and calling on the county to spend the money on proactive criminal justice measures to decrease the number of people booked into the jail. Additionally, local faith-based activist group Justice Matters and others challenged the project in court, but a judge dismissed the case in June.
The project is 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 has 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.
The county said it also 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.
However, the reality of the project had changed since the coronavirus pandemic began earlier this year. The jail saw a significant drop in inmates in the spring, and the county will likely see a decline in sales tax revenues next year that would be used to pay for the project.
Additionally, the county has said it is facing a new inmate population crisis because of the pandemic. The county said it expected to see an increase in arrests as more restaurants and bars began to reopen and many people returned to work after the initial shutdown for the pandemic.
But the facility has less room to house inmates as the space has been reconfigured to reduce inmates’ risk of contracting the virus. To address the crisis, county commissioners had called on the criminal justice leaders to find new ways to reduce the number of people they are booking into the jail.
Criminal Justice Coordinator Mike Brouwer said the project was irrelevant to the issue because expansion could not happen quickly enough to help. If solutions were found to address the issues, the county’s plan for expanding the jail may no longer be needed, Commissioner Nancy Thellman said at the time.
In July, Capt. Stacy Simmons, of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said the jail had reached its functional capacity during the pandemic because the jail was using almost all of its medium and maximum security cells. However, she said there was plenty of room in the minimum security cells, but they could not be used efficiently because they do not have proper door locks to hold certain inmates.
Plinsky said at the time the county could explore a remodel of the cells within the jail’s current footprint, meaning making changes without expanding the number of beds, to make it more functional for the county’s needs.
“As the jail becomes less full of people who are minimum security and who can be out in the community on work release, is it a possibility to retrofit or to remodel the jail inside its existing footprint to have more secure spaces?” Plinsky said. “(That’s) a question I think will come back to the commission at some point.”
The future of the project may have been doomed anyway. All of the candidates running for two of the three seats on the County Commission this fall have said they oppose the project. Regardless of which two are elected to those positions in November, they would have a majority to oppose the project when they take their seats on the commission in January.
In other business, on Wednesday the commissioners will consider:
• Providing $40,000 for the 2021 fiscal year to the recently created Child Advocacy Center of Douglas County, which would be used to support investigations into reports of child abuse.
• Submitting an application for a Kansas Housing Resources Corporation Moderate Income Housing Program, which could provide funding to support a proposal to build up to eight new affordable housing units in Baldwin City and Eudora and provide prospective homebuyers with financial assistance.
How much funding the program could provide was not included in a memo to the commissioners. If approved, the county would provide an additional $20,000 to support the project.
The County Commission will convene Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. for a regular business meeting. The meeting will be open to the walk-in public at the county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., but a link for the public to watch live online is available on the county’s website, douglascountyks.org. Residents may also call in and listen by phone by dialing 1-312-626-6799 and entering meeting ID 994-7592-4497.
Full audio from the meeting will continue to be posted on the county’s website, as usual. The meeting’s full agenda may also be found on the county’s website.
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