County commissioners boost some social service funding; majority start push to reduce economic development funding

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Courthouse is pictured in September 2018.

It was a tale of two nonprofits on the first day of deliberations for the 2022 Douglas County budget.

A group of nonprofits that provide social services to area residents tentatively won about $200,000 in additional county funding, while a nonprofit that aims to grow biotech firms in the community faced an unexpected $100,000 cut to its budget.

All three county commissioners on Tuesday presented their proposed changes to Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky’s recommended budget. All three presented changes that would lower Plinsky’s recommended property tax rate increase, but none of the proposals fully eliminated the tax rate increase.

Commissioners spent several hours Tuesday morning trying to meld their changes into a single county budget for 2022. That work is expected to continue with another budget session at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Douglas County Courthouse.

Commissioners, though, quickly came together to give preliminary approval to additional social service funding that did not make it into Plinsky’s original budget. Organizations including Just Food, The Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center, Trinity In-Home Care and The Willow Domestic Violence Center won support from all three commissioners for increased county funding.

But commissioners became divided when talk turned to the Bioscience and Technology Business Center, the entity on KU’s west campus that aims to add more high-paying bioscience jobs to Lawrence and Douglas County.

County Commission Chair Shannon Portillo proposed a $100,000 cut to the BTBC’s budget. Fellow Commissioner Shannon Reid supported the cut. This year’s budget hearings are the first for Portillo and Reid, who both won their first elections in November.

Both commissioners questioned what role the county should play in economic development funding. Portillo said she supports the work that the BTBC does but is concerned that its total county funding of just more than $400,000 is too much, given the variety of other county goals that need funding.

“I think the county needs to be really balanced in our approach and our goals, and we know that our community has spoken out about the need to do more social service support and direct community services support, and that is what our budget this year is going to reflect,” Portillo said after Tuesday’s meeting.

Reid also said she would like some of the money currently going to the BTBC to be spent on social service needs in the community.

Social service funding currently far exceeds the amount of money the county spends on economic development, irrespective to the proposed cut to the BTBC. According to data in the county’s 2022 recommended budget, economic development currently is the least funded of four “community partnership” categories funded by the county. Funding for human service organizations totals $6.92 million, funding for outside entities that provide mental and behavioral health services totals $1.74 million, funding for heritage programs and land management organizations totals $1.26 million, and economic development funding totals $1.03 million and would fall below the $1 million mark if the proposed cut is implemented.

Commissioner Patrick Kelly expressed opposition to the proposed BTBC cut.

“I think in order to make our community work and to be able to fund those social services, we have to have a role in economic development,” Kelly said. “This does provide a lot of high-paying jobs.”

The latest numbers from the BTBC show the companies it serves have just over 400 employees and an annual payroll of about $25 million. Construction currently is underway for an expansion to the BTBC’s incubator facility on the west campus that is expected to house another 250 jobs. KU Endowment also is working with the organization and others on plans for KU Innovation Park, a new business and research park that would be built near the BTBC on the west campus. Its goal would be to attract more companies to Lawrence that want to capitalize off of KU research. KU has estimated the park could house about 2,500 new jobs.

KU Endowment has said it plans to make a significant investment in the innovation park if the project moves forward. Portillo and Reid both made mentions that they did not believe a $100,000 cut to the BTBC’s budget would have too significant of an impact on the BTBC’s ability to offer services.

“This feels like a space that has a lot of money coming to it in substantial ways,” Reid said of the economic development efforts.

Kelly said he wasn’t sure that was the case. He said he wanted to hear from leaders at the BTBC. Plinsky said she expected leaders there would be surprised by the potential cut. She said she would invite BTBC leaders to make a presentation to the county commissioners at their budget deliberations on Wednesday morning.

In other budget news:

• It wasn’t a great day for every social service organization. All three commissioners balked at providing county funding to Heartland Community Health Center until they hear more about the nonprofit’s high rates of turnover among top leadership. The organization has confirmed both its CEO and chief operating officer have left the organization. The former COO said she’s hired an attorney to contest her dismissal, which came after she made a complaint against Heartland regarding a hostile workplace and racial discrimination. Heartland receives about $225,000 from the county. Commissioners agreed to place it in a special section of the budget that will give commissioners full discretion on whether to provide the funding to Heartland after having discussions with Heartland leadership later this year.

• The county took another step toward creating a public defender office to represent people accused of misdemeanor crimes in the county. Currently, the court can appoint willing local attorneys to represent those individuals if they are unable to afford to hire their own attorney. That system often creates a delay in when an attorney is assigned to a case, many times meaning a defendant doesn’t have an attorney when they first appear in court, commissioners were told. A public defender office would be staffed with attorneys who only represent people who can’t otherwise afford an attorney. That would speed up the time in which an attorney could begin representing a client, and also allow those attorneys to receive specialized training in representing such clients. Commissioners tentatively agreed to set aside about $425,000 in a special account that commissioners can decide to spend in 2022 if work progresses on creating a public defender’s office. Commissioners agreed to focus their work on crafting a program with Kansas Holistic Defenders, an area nonprofit that aims to defend clients and also work with clients to “address the root causes of involvement in the legal system.”

• All three commissioners said they weren’t interested in fully funding a requested expansion of the county’s new drug court program. That program aims to place individuals accused of certain drug crimes in a special court that focuses on ways to get individuals treatment while avoiding incarceration. The special court currently has the capacity to serve 15 individuals but asked for funding to serve up to 25. However, commissioners noted the program currently is only serving nine individuals. Commissioners expressed interest in providing funding that would allow the court to expand to 20 people. However, Portillo, who extensively researches drug courts, said she wants further explanation on some of the costs associated with the Douglas County drug court.

“I’m still not understanding why our drug court is more expensive than almost any other drug court I have seen in my life,” she said.

• Commissioners spent little time discussing what the county’s property tax rate may be for the 2022 budget. Plinsky’s recommended budget called for an approximately 1.7 mill increase in the property tax rate, which would equate to about $40 a year in additional taxes for the owner of a $200,000 home. The changes commissioners discussed would reduce the property tax rate increase to somewhere between 1 mill and 1.4 mills. However, that number is fluid as commissioners continue to add and subtract budget items. Also, county leaders received news from the City of Lawrence that the county’s estimated share of operating expenses for the jointly operated Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical department may fall by about $320,000 from earlier estimates. That change could slightly reduce Plinsky’s recommended mill levy increase.

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