Douglas County will ask voters to shift tax dollars from justice center to roads

Plan has support from sheriff's office but splits county commissioners

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Douglas County will ask voters this November to extend a portion of its sales tax scheduled to sunset in 2020 and reallocate the money from the county justice center to roads — a decision that recalled tensions from a heated debate over the Justice Center Sales and Use Tax that unfurled two years ago.

This time, the debate ended in what Douglas County Undersheriff Holly Nicholson-Kluth called “a good compromise.”

Money from the county's 1% sales tax is divided among roads, the justice center and open space: Roads receive 0.40%, the justice center 0.43% and open space 0.17%. Of the Justice Center Sales and Use Tax, 0.13% is scheduled to sunset on Dec. 31, 2020.

Commissioners voted 2-1 to put two questions on the November ballot, one asking voters to approve extending and reallocating the 0.13% to roads and the second asking voters to allow for bonding of the 0.13% for 15 years. The second question is contingent on the first passing and only allows for the county to move forward with the idea. Commissioners would later decide the amount of the bond and when it would be considered.

Three residents spoke on the issue at the June 11 board meeting, two opposed to the plan and one in favor.

Commissioner Lora Thomas — who made a similar proposal two years ago to divert justice center tax dollars to roads — said she would not support the 2019 version of the plan because it would not produce enough revenue for transportation needs. The board estimates the 0.13% tax produces more than $9 million a year.

Commissioners Roger Patridge and Abe Laydon said they hope to use the funds to aggressively address traffic and transportation issues — a top concern among constituents. The county grew by an estimated 33 people a day last year, according to the county demographer, contributing to issues around congestion and other traffic hazards.

Staff had prepared two drafts of a resolution for commissioners to consider during the June 11 public hearing.

The initial drafts included plans to take $10 million out of the justice center fund balance and put it toward roads as well. Laydon said the $10 million was crucial to jumpstarting transportation projects.

Partridge said he couldn't support taking the $10 million from public safety needs. He stayed firm despite more than one attempt from Laydon to persuade him into approving the transfer.

But Laydon agreed to the resolution without the $10 million included, saying he was most concerned with moving the overall proposal forward.

The tax has been subject to contentious debate before.

In June 2017, Thomas formally proposed reallocating 0.23% of the justice center fund to roads.

The idea was met with fierce opposition from the sheriff's office, which said it needed the money for planned projects, and impassioned pleas from members of the public on both sides of the issue. Thomas said June 11 she'd felt attacked for her proposal during the 2017 debates.

At that time, the board denied Thomas' proposal in a special business meeting that spanned two nights and included hours of public testimony.

Laydon was not on the board then, but he called Thomas a “visionary” for her 2017 initiative. He said now was the time to pass the 2019 version because it had support from key stakeholders like the sheriff's office.

“I'm still a bit baffled that she would not support her own proposal,” Laydon said after the meeting.

Thomas repeatedly said the plan does not provide sufficient funds for transportation needs in the county. In an interview after the meeting, Thomas said she had suggested in February a better compromise to her 2017 proposal by agreeing to reallocate 0.18% of Justice Center Sales and Use Tax dollars to roads and transfer $20 million from the Justice Center Fund to roads, rather than $10 million. The fund's balance is $30 million. That proposal would have earned her support on June 11, she said.

Thomas said county staff in 2018 gave commissioners transportation capital projects reports detailing $2.5 billion worth of county projects needed by 2040, of which the county would be responsible for contributing hundreds of millions of dollars. She cited population projections that the county will reach 484,000 people by 2040 — a 30 percent increase — as reasons more funds for roads are critical.

“I've worked on this for 2 1/2 years," she said June 11, "and I'm disappointed I was not able to fulfill the vision that I think we need for this county.”

Nicholson-Kluth said the sheriff's office is examining alternative funding options for projects they would have pursued with the 0.13%. In one example, they are considering remodeling the existing emergency operations and dispatch center, rather than expanding or building a new facility, which could save between $10 million and $15 million. Nicholson-Kluth said the center is at capacity.

She also noted a recent financial offer from the board of $13.3 million for school safety measures. That alleviated other funding pressures on the sheriff's office, like supporting more school resource officers in the county.

She would not speak to the $10 million transfer because she did not know how that money was planned to be spent, she said, but called asking voters to reallocate the 0.13% a good compromise.

“I think it's a win-win for all,” she said. “We'll do with what we have.”

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