At its February 21 meeting, the Board of Directors requested that The Chamber’s Public Policy Task Force evaluate the County’s half-cent sales tax proposal to renovate and expand the Douglas County jail and develop a mental health crisis center. At its March 28 meeting, the Board received the task force’s recommendation and, after substantial discussion, voted to support the ballot measure.
The Chamber employed great care in the development of this position. The Chamber’s Public Policy Task Force, a group of ten business and community leaders, reviewed all aspects of the upcoming ballot initiative over the course of four meetings and nearly eight hours of presentations and deliberations, including:
- A presentation from Bob Tryanski, Douglas County Director of Behavioral Health Projects, regarding the various components of the proposed mental health crisis intervention center and system of care. County Commissioner Nancy Thellman was also present to field questions related to funding and political process.
- A presentation from representatives of the opposition coalition, including Benet Magnuson of Kansas Appleseed, Patrick Wilbur of the Lawrence Sunset Alliance, and Ben MacConnell of Justice Matters, followed by a presentation from a representative of Citizens for a Better Douglas County, Jean Shepherd.
- A presentation at the Douglas County Jail from Undersheriff Gary Bunting, followed by a jail tour with Captain Wes Houk and Reentry Director Mike Brouwer. Sheriff Ken McGovern was also present for questions.
- Chamber staff researched follow up questions for task force members and shared those answers before the group concluded its work with a 90-minute deliberation.
A great many factors influenced this decision. Given the complexities of this ballot measure, it is not possible to list all of the factors considered, but the following bullet points will touch on a few:
- The mental health crisis center had solid support from the outset. It is clear that the state will continue to push mental health services to the local level. Therefore, we are largely on our own to deal with the mental health of our community. Thankfully, we are a community with a long history of supporting mental health services. The proposed 24/7 crisis intervention center is an innovative collaboration, combining the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, Lawrence Memorial Hospital, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, DCCCA, Heartland RADAC, and Heartland Community Health Center to provide crisis intervention, recovery, and preventative services to meet the growing needs of Douglas County residents.
- Nearly 60% of the sales tax will go to support the mental health crisis center and other needed mental health programming in the County. This factored heavily into the Chamber’s support of this initiative.
- Upon closer study of inmate data and the jail facilities, it is apparent that we not only need more space at our jail, but we need different space. The jail must be configured in a manner that ensures safe and humane conditions for everyone and supports the 47 different rehabilitative programs offered by our nationally recognized reentry program. These programs are designed to serve people where they are – in jail – in the hopes that they will never be incarcerated again. With current jail capacity, inmates cannot participate in these rehabilitative programs, especially when they have to be sent to other counties due to overcrowding. Because other counties can choose the type of inmate they will accept from us, inmates sent to other facilities are generally first time or low-level offenders, those who would benefit most from our rehabilitative programs. As a result, rehabilitative reentry programming has dropped from an average of 100 hours per inmate to 10 hours per inmate, contributing to higher rates of recidivism.
- The additional space would alleviate an unfair and unnecessary burden on families and attorneys to commute to visit inmates who are sent to facilities all across the state.
- There is an important national discussion taking place around high rates of incarceration. However, with one of the lowest incarceration rates in the state (at roughly one-third of the national rate); mass incarceration is clearly not an issue in Douglas County. Many aspects of this ballot measure are aimed at avoiding incarceration of people who should not be incarcerated, or providing services to those who are incarcerated so they do not return to jail. With the proper resources, Douglas County could continue to be a model of innovation and compassion.
- The question is not whether to improve the jail, but how to finance those improvements. If Proposition 1 passes, the jail reconfiguration and expansion will be completed in three years, ensuring safe and humane conditions for all inmates and staff and providing appropriate spaces for our nationally recognized reentry programming. If this measure is not approved, the jail will be expanded in phases over the next 15 years. This would mean that the current overcrowded and unsafe conditions, as well as extremely limited rehabilitative reentry programming, would persist for many years to come.
- It is our belief that an additional half-cent sales tax would not put our business community at a competitive disadvantage. The following chart compares our current and proposed sales tax rates with seven other northeast Kansas communities:
Current Sales Tax Rate with Additional Proposed (0.5%) Sales Tax
Mission 9.6% Mission 9.6%
Leavenworth 9.5% Lawrence 9.55%
Olathe 9.475% Leavenworth 9.5%
Lenexa 9.35% Olathe 9.475%
Topeka 9.15% Lenexa 9.35%
Kansas City 9.125% Topeka 9.15%
Overland Park 9.1% Kansas City 9.125%
Lawrence 9.05% Overland Park 9.1%
- It has been estimated that roughly 30% of local sales tax revenue is collected from visitors, college students, and businesses outside of our community. This helps to reduce the burden on local residents.
- Additional funds would be required for jail operations and programming once the reconfiguration and expansion are completed. The County has indicated that those funds would be generated from a future mill levy increase of approximately 3.8 mills. The Chamber factored this additional future funding into its decision and determined that this is a reasonable compromise, considering that the entire cost of the jail renovation and expansion could have been funded through a mill levy increase.
- The coupling of the jail and mental health crisis center proposals has caused some concern in the community. While our community has funded multiple unrelated projects and programs through a single funding source in the past, we recognize that many of the social, cultural, and philosophical issues around a jail discussion are very different from those of a mental health crisis center. For that reason, we studied the jail and mental health crisis center proposals independently and both were supported.
The Chamber supports the creation of a mental health crisis center and system of care, as well as the reconfiguration and expansion of the Douglas County jail. We urge our members and the community at large to vote “Yes” on Proposition 1. If you would like to learn more about the ballot measure, please visit The Chamber’s web site at lawrencechamber.com for links to educational handouts, videos, and a schedule of events you can attend to learn more about this important issue.