Johnson County commissioners took a small step toward building a new courthouse or additional buildings near the old one when they agreed last week to start saving money for future construction.
The commission decided to designate excess general fund reserves each year for the purposes of building a “new or adjunct” courthouse one day. The staff-written savings plan was requested by the commission during the budgeting process earlier this year. The issue came up again in August as commissioners struggled with whether to junk the rehabbing of the former King Louie bowling alley in favor of a new courthouse. (In the end in August, the commission agreed to continue its plan to rehab the bowling alley for the Johnson County Museum.)
Each county budget has a planned reserve fund to deal with unexpected expenses. However, sometimes more money comes in than expected through taxes, creating a bigger reserve than planned for. When that happens, the county must spend down the reserve amount.
The reserve fund is predicted to be about $81.1 million by the end of this year, which is larger than the county needs. The plan is to earmark the excess amount to offset the future expenses of expanding the courthouse. However, the money will not be put into a separate account and the commission is free to change course at any time.
County officials don’t know how much money would be designated this year because final expenses and tax revenues are still coming in for the last quarter.
The idea of expanding the courthouse has been a hot issue in the county for years. Since 2005, three task forces have recommended expanding courthouse space because of projected overcrowding in the current building. But the commission has opted to do remodeling and repair on the current building and to add space by remodeling a former Dillon’s grocery store at 588 E. Santa Fe St.
The current building was erected in 1951, with an addition in 1972. When it was built, there were only three judges. Now there are 19 judges and four magistrates, and by the 2020s, the county will need 30 judges to handle the caseloads that go with increasing population, court officials have said. There also have been some concerns about safety in transporting jail inmates and other problems that go with aging buildings.
Commissioner Steve Klika has been a strong proponent of a new courthouse and was the one who suggested last August that the county sell the King Louie building and put the money toward courthouse construction.
“Eleven years messing around with this thing is getting to be ridiculous,” he said. “We’re going to have to address this and start figuring out what we are going to do.”
Commissioner Jim Allen added that avoiding the inevitable expansion will still cost money, as the county pays to remodel and fix aging elevators and leaky roofs. “It’s just good planning,” he said of the savings plan. One way or another, money will still be spent on a courthouse, he said.
But a courthouse expansion is far from a done deal. First, the commission would have to agree enough about the idea to get a plan written into the county’s long-range capital improvements plan. And not all commissioners agree that any new buildings need to be put up.
Commissioner Michael Ashcraft, for instance, objected to the funding plan last week because it implies new construction will be preferred over upgrading current facilities. Ashcraft has doubted that the increase in court cases will be as big as some have projected. And he has said he would prefer to put more money into the county’s program for the developmentally disabled rather than a courthouse building.
“I agree the courthouse has needs,” he said. “I just wonder if those needs are truly based on future growth.”
For Commissioner John Toplikar, talk of earmarking money for a courthouse brought back unpleasant memories of the August budget discussion. He reminded the board that his amendment to put some money toward asphalting and chip-sealing county roads failed. “I would have liked to see some of this money go to that fund,” he said, adding that there are also many needs for residents in poverty. “I think we’re just jumping the gun a little bit,” he said.
Ultimately the measure passed, with Ashcraft and Toplikar voting against it. Commissioner Jason Osterhaus was absent.