A new courthouse with 28 courtrooms and an addition with 12 criminal courtrooms have made the short list of options for expansion that the Johnson County Commission is considering.
Commissioners asked staff last week for more information on the costs and capabilities of a new building of either 28 or 12 courtrooms located in the same general area as the current courthouse in central Olathe. The action comes after years of delayed decisions on the politically difficult question of whether to replace a courthouse that experts say has become outdated and inefficient.
Commission members hope to have enough information to choose an option for concept development and public input within the year.
The 28-courtroom option of about 250,000 square feet could be built either at the northeast corner of Santa Fe Street and Kansas Avenue, just to the north of the current building, or in the courtyard attached to the current county administration building. In both cases, the current courthouse would be demolished with the space possibly used for parking or other purposes.
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The northern location would cost less than a previous $148.6 million estimate for a bigger building and would include an inmate holding tunnel from the nearby jail.
The courtyard building could be attached to the county administration building but might be significantly taller. The cost of the courtyard location has yet to be determined.
The 12-courtroom option is being considered for the same two locations. The difference is that with this option, the county would continue to use the current courthouse.
That option would cost roughly $135.5 million — $92 million for the new building and $43.5 million for the remodeling and security updates that are already in the seven-year plan for the existing building.
However, the 12-courtroom option would have the highest operating expenses and the highest square footage. Building that option would add 155,000 square feet to the existing 233,000-square-foot courthouse for a total of 388,000 square feet. Operating costs were estimated at around $3.5 million a year for that option by the first full year of operation in 2020. Operating expenses would be higher because the county would have to continue to use the current energy-inefficient courthouse and the total square footage would be quite a bit more than the 28-courtroom option.
Operating costs for the 28-room option were estimated at around $2 million a year.
The outdated and structurally deficient 23-courtroom courthouse has been an issue that has cropped up for over a decade. The building, erected in 1951 with an addition in 1972, has had many problems, ranging from inadequate separation of visitors, court officials and inmates, limited space for security and waiting, lack of space in most rooms, a difficult-to-follow floor plan, lack of audiovisual capability for modern court procedures and energy-sucking mechanical systems.
In addition, many of the courthouse’s key areas are not wheelchair accessible and the building only minimally meets requirements for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We should be ashamed of ourselves for what we have not done for people that have special needs,” District Court Judge Kevin Moriarty said at a recent work session with the commission.
Moriarty described a chair lift that is “embarrassing.
“It takes forever to work, takes the sheriff (employee) to do it and a lot of times it’s not working,” he said.
Once upstairs, jurors in wheelchairs may find they cannot enter some court or jury rooms because of a step up or down.
Past studies showed that the rising population would trigger more cases and eventually more judges. Some of those studies recommended a 36-courtroom building. However the growing caseload has not been a driving force of the most recent conversations. The caseload has not increased at the projected rate.
A decision on what to do about the courthouse has been put off for years, but this time may be different. Several commissioners have vowed to get things rolling before construction costs begin to rise again.
“The recession has probably been to our advantage as far as this courthouse goes,” said Commissioner Steve Klika. “The costs did not skyrocket.”
But “now, if you don’t take care of this, the cost of doing something in the future will become more of a crisis,” he said.
Klika also urged commissioners to be clear in stating the need to the public, since most county residents do not have any dealings in the courthouse and won’t see the need firsthand.
Commissioner Jim Allen said the lack of accessibility is particularly disturbing. “Someone who is disabled should have full access to all areas of the building,” he said.
Commissioner Michael Ashcraft agreed that accessibility is important, but said he wanted more information on whether even more efficiency could be found in how courts handle their business.
Ashcraft lauded the changes court employees already have made to make better use of space and time. Technological advances such as electronic files and video conferencing plus the availability of the Internet for public information have combined to free up space that was formerly used to store paper records. Ashcraft asked whether those efficiencies might be increased by adding a night court or the removing traffic court to unused space in municipal courts.
Once the commission chooses an option to pursue, it will fund some initial studies and ask for public input. That could happen from mid September through the end of this year, with more details to follow.
Financing was not discussed in depth during the meeting. Several commissioners said they’d like to see a public vote on the issue. A one-eighth or one-quarter cent sales tax have been mentioned as a possibility to pay for the bonds.
No matter what happens, spending on the existing building continues. The county is getting set to demolish a colonnade at the west entrance that has deteriorated and become a danger to pedestrians. Scaffolding is there now for protection.
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