Douglas County Commission nixes jail expansion plans in 3-0 vote

photo by: Screenshot

Clockwise from top left, Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky, Commissioner Nancy Thellman, Commission Vice Chair Michelle Derusseau, Assistant County Administrator Jill Jolicouer and Commission Chair Patrick Kelly are pictured during the commission's meeting on Sept. 23, 2020. The commission voted to rescind a resolution to expand the Douglas County Jail.

The Douglas County Commission on Wednesday laid to rest a long-debated plan to expand the local jail.

Commissioners passed a resolution in January to move forward with the roughly $30 million expansion of the Douglas County Jail, but they recently asked to reexamine the project because of changes that have occurred amid the coronavirus pandemic. County Administrator Sarah Plinsky also recently said the county could consider a remodeling of the facility, without expanding its footprint, to address inmate crowding issues.

Wednesday evening, commissioners’ vote to rescind the resolution put a halt to the expansion plans, which had drawn criticism over the past several years from many area residents and groups who pushed instead for alternatives to incarceration.

Others who opposed the project had argued that the county was not listening to voters, who in May 2018 widely rejected a half-cent sales tax that would have funded an expansion. When that measure failed, the county had planned instead to use funds generated through a 1-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.

Commission Chair Patrick Kelly said he is thankful to the county’s partners in the criminal justice system who have accepted commissioners’ challenge to keep jail population numbers down.

Commissioner Nancy Thellman said she would like to discuss some maintenance concerns that will still need to be addressed at the jail, such as issues with the heating and cooling systems and the elevators, that the commission had previously considered as part of the overall expansion plans. Plinsky said she’d like to bring more information back to the commission at a future date.

The expansion project, which would have added up to 112 beds to the 186-bed facility, had been estimated to cost roughly $29.6 million, plus the 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 expansion may have been doomed anyway — two of the three incumbents’ terms will come to an end in January, and those running for their seats in the Nov. 3 general election have said they oppose the expansion.

In other business, commissioners:

• Voted to provide $40,000 for the 2021 fiscal year to the recently created Child Advocacy Center of Douglas County, which will be used to support investigations into reports of child abuse. Assistant County Administrator Jill Jolicoeur said Pam Weigand, the county’s director of criminal justice services, agreed to serve on the organization’s board of directors.

• Agreed to apply 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. The county will provide $20,000 to support the project.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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Related coverage:

• Jan. 29, 2020 — Despite commenters’ opposition, Douglas County Commission authorizes nearly $30 million jail expansion project

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

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

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

• June 24, 2020 — Local criminal justice leaders working to make courts more efficient to address looming jail population crisis

• July 29, 2020 — Douglas County Sheriff’s Office captain says county jail has reached its functional capacity amid COVID-19

• Sept. 19, 2020 — Douglas County Commission to consider formally abandoning controversial jail expansion project


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