After 15 years and $1.7 million spent on consultants, the Johnson County Commission decided Thursday to ask November voters to raise the sales tax by a quarter cent to pay for a new courthouse.
Voters will be asked whether the sales tax should be increased by a quarter of a cent for 10 years to raise money to tear down the existing courthouse in downtown Olathe and replace it with a new building just across Santa Fe Street to the north. The money also would go to build a new lab for autopsies, which are currently done in Kansas City, Kan. The new coroner’s facility would be at 119th Street and Ridgeview Drive in Olathe.
Together, the building projects would cost $201 million, with $182 million for the courthouse and $19 million for the coroner’s building. Those estimates include the cost to tear down the current courthouse, built in 1952, and rebuild the space it occupies into a courtyard.
Commissioners voted 5-2 during a committee meeting to ask staff to draw up ballot language. They are expected to take one last vote in May to formally put the measure before the voters.
Commissioners John Toplikar and Michael Ashcraft voted against the courthouse proposal, although both said they support the idea of letting voters decide.
“Early on I was skeptical about the need for a new courthouse,” said Commission Chairman Ed Eilert.
But after looking at other options, such as building a small, separate building for criminal court, Eilert said he became convinced that one new building is the answer.
“When you look at the money that would have to be spent on the existing facility in order to make it effectively useable over a long period of time, the numbers just don’t work for me,” he said.
The current courthouse has become deficient for the growing county population in several ways, consultants have said. In addition to the repairs that come with an aging building, the courthouse layout, lack of accessibility for the disabled and energy inefficiency also have driven the discussion.
Inmates coming over from the jail are not separated in the hallways around the courtrooms, and the entrances need security improvements, for instance. The courthouse also would need millions of dollars of work to bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act — work that would reduce the number of courtrooms from the current 23 to make room for such things as wheelchair ramps and widening of doorways.
Commissioners began the latest study of courthouse options about nine months ago and have looked at several options, including one that would have kept the current courthouse and added another small building to increase courtroom space. However operating costs for that option would have been higher because of the repair work and energy inefficiency on the current building. One estimate was that $216 million of work would have to be done in the next 13 years on the current courthouse and that would not solve all the issues.
Long-term costs such as interest on the bonds and operating costs also were a factor in the decision. Building a new courthouse is expected to cost about $278 million over a 20-year period beginning in 2018, including the construction. Costs of maintaining and expanding the existing courthouse would cost $439 million over the same period, according to county estimates.
The new nine-level structure would stand taller than the current courthouse and would increase space to 28 courtrooms. It also would add security measures at the main entrance and secure parking for judges. It is expected to take about four years to design and build.
The coroner’s facility would have modern technology necessary to collect and analyze the tiniest evidence. Currently the county outsources its autopsies to a facility in Kansas City, Kan. that is not accredited and has no on-site equipment for toxicology analysis.
Proponents of a new lab say the structure would give Johnson County better control over autopsy work and would have more space and remote cameras to protect police and court officials observing from coming into contact with potentially hazardous fluids and tissue.
Toplikar said he thinks the existing courthouse is adequate for the county’s needs.
“I haven’t had any complaints from employees over there saying they can’t do their jobs,” Toplikar said.
Instead of building a new courthouse, the county should make improvements for handicapped accessibility, he said.
Toplikar also said the county should be watching its money because problems with the state budget may lead to cuts in state funding to county programs.
Ashcraft said the county could save by spending money just to improve the entrances and accessibility. He also questioned whether the sales tax could be counted on to produce enough to pay off the project, since higher sales taxes in Kansas might be driving shoppers across the state line. Online purchases have also affected sales tax, he said.
If approved, the sales tax increase would be on top of the statewide sales tax increase set by the Kansas Legislature last year. The Roeland Park Wal-Mart, for instance, is now charging a 9.975 percent sales tax and the additional county tax would push it to 10.225 percent. The Oak Park Mall area, currently at 9.350 percent would become 9.6 percent; the several pockets of Olathe that are 10.225 percent would rise to 10.475 percent.
The commission considered three options to finance the project. A property tax increase for 20 years would have cost the owner of a $261,000 home about $3.88 a month, but would have cost more in interest payments because of the longer term. The commission also considered an eighth-cent sales tax increase combined with a mill levy increase.
Some commissioners said they favored the sales tax because non-county residents would shoulder about 22 percent of the cost. Also, the sales tax would add income to local governments, since 37 percent of county sales tax revenues must go to city governments.
Commissioner Steve Klika said he was happy to see the courthouse idea finally get some traction.
“If we keep putting it off or extend the timeline we are putting the burden on the next generation,” he said.
Roxie Hammill: firstname.lastname@example.org.