ate in the day Monday, county commissioners decided to stop their effort to put a jail or law enforcement sales tax issue on the November ballot and will now work toward the possibility of an April vote.
As part of a possible major expansion of the county jail that would nearly triple the current capacity, the Platte County Commission said it is engaging in discussions on the possibility of leasing jail space to Kansas City for up to 150 of that city’s prisoners.
Discussion of a possible deal with Kansas City puts a $43 million, 330-bed addition to the current county jail “back on the table,” county officials said Monday. The 330-bed expansion would increase the county jail’s total capacity to 510 beds.
The major expansion is one of two possibilities the commissioners say they are considering. The other is to complete the basement portion of the current jail, known as “futures,” which they estimate would add 65 beds. Price tag to finish that space is estimated at $7.5 million, which would include construction costs, some mechanical upgrades to plumbing and sewer to solve problems at the current jail, and a fix of some locking mechanism upgrades, says Ron Schieber, presiding commissioner.
The earliest any jail proposal will go on the ballot, the commission said at the end of the day on Monday, would be April.
There have been several back-and-forth public stances taken by commissioners in recent days. The $43 million project being discussed was reported in last Wednesday’s Landmark. Then Friday, the county commission announced it was ending any thoughts of that large expansion, saying long range financial projections showed the county could not afford it. On Friday commissioners said they had narrowed their two options to building out the basement of the jail or to “do nothing.”
But Monday morning during its regular administrative session, Schieber said a discussion over the weekend between Dagmar Wood, first district county commissioner, and a Kansas City council member had brought the $43 million expansion back as a possibility.
DECISION TO END TALK OF A NOVEMBER VOTE
Platte County Commissioners had first indicated publicly on Aug. 6 that they were considering a November sales tax increase proposal. The surprising announcement came just three weeks prior to ballot certification deadline of Aug. 28. But that has changed.
“We’re not going to be ready this week or next week,” Schieber said late Monday. Wood and Elliott said they agreed with the decision to delay any election.
“We have to take this extra time to vet this other proposal,” Elliott said.
“We need time to vet this possible Kansas City partnership,” Wood said.
Schieber said April would be the earliest any possible jail tax/law enforcement tax will appear on a ballot, indicating there’s a possibility it may happen later than April.
“There’s still a lot of work to do if we’re going to vet this Kansas City proposal,” Schieber said.
The commission had earlier indicated strong desire to avoid anything other than a regularly scheduled election ballot, like the one coming up in November. They’d like to have the issue at an election that typically draws a high voter turnout, they indicated, and to avoid any possible higher costs due from a special election.
After the decision to delay a vote made, the commission then briefly discussed a timeline.
Commissioners said they would like to get more information from Kansas City as far as what the city is willing to put forward in a dollar amount up front, as well as a number the city would expect in terms of jail beds both at the beginning of any agreement and toward the end of the agreement, when the county says it would need the city to be occupying fewer of the county jail beds.
“They’ve got to be willing to put money up front for a certain number of beds that decline over that period,” Schieber said.
Commissioners have also asked Kevin Robinson, county auditor, to run some numbers on what financial projections indicate the county can afford in bonding of a major jail expansion as well as operating costs.
The commission mentioned it would like to have necessary information from Kansas City around mid-September.
Schieber indicated the next step in the timeline would then be three months for an “informational and decision-making time period” that would include “much more public input.”
In its earlier pursuit of a November ballot issue, the county has been openly questioned about allowing no time for public input prior to the Aug. 28 ballot certification deadline.
The commission discussed having public forums/improved communications in the September through December portion of their timeline, whether the public input sessions be handled strictly by the commissioners themselves or whether they hired a firm to assist with the public input process.
Deadline for ballot certification for an April vote is Jan. 22.
A POTENTIAL DEAL WITH KANSAS CITY
Officials indicated a potential deal for county jail space to house City of Kansas City Municipal Court prisoners came to the surface via a conversation between Wood and Teresa Loar, a Kansas City council member, over the weekend.
A potential deal could include Kansas City putting millions of dollars up front, which the county says would reduce the amount it needs to bond to construct the $43 million addition.
In a conversation with other commissioners on Monday, Wood said: “I plugged in $15 million (from Kansas City) but I really don’t know if that brings it down enough to be able to afford the payments and the operations.”
As for the other idea of building out the basement (known as “futures”) of the current jail to house 65 inmates in addition to the jail’s current capacity of 180, Wood said: “Futures is a band aid. Before it’s even open for the first inmate we’ll have to start the next jail campaign, I believe.”
Wood was asked by the other two commissioners to get back in touch with Kansas City to try to acquire additional specifics to see if an agreement is a possibility.
As for funding mechanisms for the two options, commissioners have discussed the possibility of a new 1/8th cent sales tax for jail construction and a possible new 3/8th cent sales tax for law enforcement operations when it comes to the $43 million proposal.
For building out futures, a 1/8th cent sales tax that would run for two years has been discussed.
Wood says the sheriff’s numbers show the average daily jail population has increased by 20 prisoners each of the last two years.
Capacity of the current jail is 180.
Major Erik Holland of the sheriff’s department said when the population goes over the 180 capacity, the department is able to place temporary bunks on the floor.
“Our preference is not to have people in temporary bunks,” Holland remarked.
On Monday, the jail population was 193, with 19 of those being ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) prisoners. ICE pays the county a fee of $77 per day per inmate.
Sheriff Mark Owen said the county currently earns more than $500,000 in annual jail rental fees from ICE and additional fees from other agencies that bring the revenue from renting out space up to $600,000 annually.
“If we start to hit capacity we may be forced to drop ICE prisoners early next year,” John Elliott, second district commissioner, said Monday. “And we don’t have a funding source for the replacement of it (the $600,000 in jail bed rental revenue).”
THE ZONA ROSA EFFECT
Elliott last week said the county’s situation with Zona Rosa bonds is a factor in his mind for urgency to move on a jail project. A decade ago a previous county commission agreed to have county taxpayers back bonds used to construct parking garages in the second phase of Zona Rosa. Zona Rosa has recently defaulted on its mortgage, and a special one percent sales tax in place in the shopping district has not generated enough revenue to cover bond payments.
Wood recently said the sales tax revenues may come in around $700,000 short of what is needed for the bond payment due in December. The county will then have a decision to make as to whether it will cover that shortfall. Not making the debt payments could adversely affect the county’s credit rating.
Schieber said this week he is not in favor of the county making that payment “unless there is a long range plan in place” for the Zona Rosa property, a long range plan apparently established by the bank who holds the debt.
“If the bank becomes the owner they have to have a plan to bring the value back to the property. They don’t want to take a big bath on their loan. If we were to get an owner in there that says ‘here’s our plan for leasing,’ then I’m all ears as to why the county should participate (in covering the payment). Without that, you’re just throwing money into the wind. Until I see a plan I’m not in favor of paying the bill,” Schieber said Monday.
The county commission has indicated a desire to get a jail project financed before any potential hit can be applied to its credit rating for potential lack of payment on Zona Rosa bonds.
Wood indicated on Monday she might be in favor of covering the estimated $700,000 December shortfall if it protects the county’s credit rating while a new jail deal is finalized and then “tank it (Zona bonds) afterward.”
“We would have to peel back on our jail if we go junk bonds,” she said.