August 19, 2018. Lawrence Journal-World.
The Douglas County Commission made the right decision in choosing to seek a quarter-cent sales tax increase to fund the construction and operation of a mental health campus.
The county’s other options included a half-cent sales tax increase and a combination of sales and property taxes. The quarter-cent sales tax gives the mental health campus the best chance of success.
The mental health campus includes plans for a 20,000-square-foot crisis center with sobering and detoxification units, transitional housing for those with behavioral health issues and funding for new mental health services.
If approved by voters in November, the quarter-cent sales tax will raise an estimated $4.9 million annually. That is $885,000 less than the amount the county said was needed to build the campus and fund the programming in Proposition 1, a ballot question county voters rejected in May. Proposition 1 sought a half-cent sales tax to fund the mental health center as well as expansion of the Douglas County Jail.
There is broader community support for the mental health campus than the jail expansion. A Journal-World survey of 2,000 registered voters conducted in April showed that 71.9 percent supported the mental health crisis center versus just 31 percent support for the expanded jail.
Justice Matters, a faith-based organization that strongly opposed jail expansion, advocated for the quarter-cent option. Justice Matters had warned the county it would fight a half-cent sales tax as too similar to Proposition 1 and too burdensome on taxpayers.
Rose Schmidt, co-president of the group, said Justice Matters feared that if a half-cent increase were successful, the county would use the additional dollars to fund jail expansion. The half-cent sales tax would generate slightly less than $10 million annually.
But of the quarter-cent option Schmidt said, “We would endorse it, we would campaign for it, we would be full-heartedly behind it.”
Commissioners Nancy Thellman, Mike Gaughan and Michelle Derusseau all expressed preference for the half-cent sales tax because it would fully fund the crisis center as well as expanded mental health services. Thellman said the additional funds would not have been spent on the jail, but she understood that voters might have been hesitant. She also feared that they would balk at any property tax increase.
Commissioners made the right call. In crafting a ballot issue, commissioners have to give primary consideration to winning over voters. The quarter-cent sales tax increase gives the mental health campus the best chance at success this fall.
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