Lawrence-based activist group Justice Matters thinks the Douglas County Commission’s decision to move forward with a $29.6 million expansion to the county jail is in violation of a Kansas statute.
The statute provides voters with the ability to force a referendum on any matter that would put taxpayers in debt through the sale of bonds which will fund the expansion.
KSA 12-195b, subsection e states that if voters of any county have not yet approved the issuance of bonds, that county is required to post notice of the proposals for two consecutive weeks, with at least one notice per week. Once the last notice is posted, a 30-day window opens for a petition to be filed by any other concerned party, with no fewer signatures than 5% of the county’s last election turnout. If the petition meets that requirement, the county is forced to get voter approval on the issuance of bonds.
Justice Matters has fought against the jail expansion before, most notably in May 2018 when they helped defeat the first Proposition 1 — in which the County Commission packaged the jail expansion together with a behavioral health campus that Justice Matters vehemently supported. However, Co-President of Justice Matters Brent Hoffman feels the conversation has shifted.
“My motivation at this stage is the fact that I think the county is abusing power, and they are suppressing our modest democratic rights to be able to have a say when a county or other jurisdiction is indebting us,” Hoffman said. “They’re indebting us.”
Sarah Plinsky, the Douglas County administrator, said legal justification for the county’s approval of the expansion can be found in a resolution that was passed by voters in 1994. The resolution provides for the issuance of bonds to be funded by a near $30 million chunk of a 1% sales tax. The resolution states that the revenue collected as a result of the bonds can be used to fund “the expansion and operation of the county jail and attendant improvements and related costs."
“Since 1994, the county has issued bonds five times without any protest petition periods,” Plinksy said.
Hoffman fears the language used in the ballot resolution can authorize the county to use that 1% sales tax for much more than just jail expansion.
“They think that ’94 vote gave them the authority forever to do whatever they want with the revenue from that sales tax, and KSA 12-195b, subsection e is a provision that gives us a right to check their power,” Hoffman said.
Plinsky argued it is normal that the tax proposal does not have a sunset plan.
“It’s a very common local government practice for those taxes to not have sunsets. And do you know why? Because those taxes go to pay for positions and salaries that never go away,” Plinsky said.
However, this resolution was not used to pass the other piece of Proposition 1 that failed in May 2018. The county later put the behavioral health campus on the ballot in November 2018, also called Proposition 1, which passed with over 70% approval.
The Kansan reached out to the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office for comment on Justice Matters’ claims, but they declined to comment.
Justice Matters said they would ultimately prefer to see the money from the sales tax and the sale of bonds be used instead to help fund more rehabilitative programs for inmates.
“We could spend the same amount of money at the other end of the process and actually help people rather than just provide a nicer jail for people,” said Joanne Harader, another member of Justice Matters and Pastor of the Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence.