Is it time to address crowding at the courthouse?

07/09/2013 5:50 PM

07/09/2013 5:51 PM

It’s come up time and again, only to be sidestepped or rejected outright. But still the question persists:Should Johnson County build a new courthouse?

Now that the recession has eased a bit, it is a question that some members of the county commission are happy to see raised again.

“I’m very pleased this discussion is being had,” said Commissioner Steve Klika at a recent meeting.

The current space situation has become critical, he said. “I don’t want us to have to react to a tragic situation.”

Commissioners raised the subject in May during a public meeting and revisited it during work sessions as the county prepares its budget. The commissioners have asked their staff to come up with a plan before the year is out to earmark funds for some type of major courthouse project. But what exactly that will entail and how much it will cost are yet to be determined.

It is a question that has bedeviled the Johnson County Commission for years. Since 2005, three task forces on overcrowded conditions have recommended a new one be built. The most recent recommendation was in 2011.

But the commission avoided the issue, saying the courthouse space could be used more efficiently and at a lower cost with remodels. At that time, there was concern that voters who had approved a quarter-cent sales tax for other public safety projects in 2008 would shy away from the tax increase recommended by the task force.

Since then the former Dillon’s grocery store at 588 East Santa Fe St. in Olathe has been remade into office space for the Tenth Judicial District court services and trustee’s offices and the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s offices are administrative, but the court services office sees the public on such matters as pre-sentence investigations, parenting mediation and bond supervision.

More renovation on the existing courthouse is planned. In May, commissioners approved a $3.9 million contract to McCown Gordon Construction for work that includes two additional courtrooms and expansion of space used by the district attorney and Justice Information Management Systems offices.

The new building and additional renovation will take some of the space pressure off for the time being, but some commissioners said the county may need to start planning a new building to keep up with population growth and the increased court traffic that would ensue.

“We need to go into the next 30 to 50 years with a facility that’s going to meet the needs and expectations,” Klika said during discussion of the contract. “Primarily from a safety standpoint and a business standpoint we’ve got to deal with this issue.”

The current courthouse was built in 1951 with an addition in 1972. At the time it was built, the court system had three judges. Now 19 judges and four magistrates must share space that is often cramped or inappropriate for the type of hearings needed, said Court Administrator Mike McLain.

For example, some courtrooms don’t have jury boxes or a safe way for the sheriff to move prisoners in and out, he said.

For the short term, the amount of space is adequate for the judges the county has, he said, but, “for long-term projections, there is no doubt we will outgrow this building.”

Population growth typically causes an increase in court cases, he said. By the 2020 or 2025, the county will need at least 30 judges to handle the increasing caseload. Those numbers are based on studies that show the caseloads increasing along with population, he said.

The county is already short on judges to handle the cases now being heard, McLain said. Judges salaries, however, are paid from state funds and not the county budget.

As commissioners discussed the latest remodeling, County Manager Hannes Zacharias reminded them that officials have been saying the county should stop pouring money into the old building since 1988. “That was fifteen years ago. So we’ve done very little since then except Band-Aid activities to really improve the space,” Zacharias said.

Commissioner Michael Ashcraft questioned the need for both a new courthouse and the plan to renovate the existing space, saying it may be based on “faulty assumptions.” He cited figures saying the caseload has actually gone down 25 percent over the last five years.

“We actually are spending more money to accommodate more judges who are doing less work,” he said. “Shouldn’t we actually be cutting back?”

McLain said a short-term decrease in cases can probably be attributed to the recession. The Kansas Highway Patrol, for instance, cut back on miles driven to save fuel, he said. That coincided with a decrease in traffic charges.

Commissioner Edward Peterson also said the recession may have deterred some lawsuits. But, “historically there is a close correlation between courthouse use and number of cases filed and the growth of population. Our planning should proceed accordingly based on that,” Peterson said.

Peterson, who said he would like to see a new building, said that even if it was approved immediately it would still be at least three to five years before it could be up and running. In the meantime, he said the county should do what it can to make the current courthouse functional.

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