The Johnson County Commission is asking the public to weigh in on plans to build a new courthouse and a tax increase that would pay for it.
Three different types and durations of tax increases are being considered. In April, the commission is expected to make a decision on bringing the project to a public vote. After that, voters would approve any tax increases in November.
About 30 people attended the first open house meeting held March 7 at the Johnson County Administrative Building in Olathe. More open houses to present the same information are scheduled through April in the remaining county commission districts.
The meeting included a 20-minute presentation by SFS Architecture, the local firm that worked with the county on conceptual designs for the new courthouse, an eight-question survey, and several information booths staffed by commissioners, the consultant team and county management staff.
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With three expansions and seven significant renovations, the building has been retrofitted as much as possible, Assistant County Manager Joe Waters said. But decaying infrastructure, inaccessibility for persons with physical disabilities, crowded courtrooms, security hazards and outdated technology continue to be problems for the structure.
“The current facility was constructed in 1952,” Waters said. “It was built as an office building with some courtrooms in it and that is one of our fundamental challenges with the building.”
Those attending the open house were eager to learn more about the county’s proposal. Most seemed to agree that a new courthouse was needed, but opinions differed on the overall design of the new building. Many completed a survey that asked them to identify what financing option they would support. The commission will use this feedback in its final decision on the financing option.
Olathe residents Joe Vader, 78, and Diane Vader, 76, said they favored the 1/4 -cent sales tax financing option because it would collect money from the many people who live elsewhere, but shop in Johnson County.
“Being an attorney for 52 years in downtown Olathe, I was very interested in the presentation,” Joe said. “I felt informed and happy they had moved along to the extent that they had. I was a bit disappointed in the design, but I know it’s conceptual.”
Diane Vader said the need for the new courthouse was new to her.
“I was very glad to get informed about the need. He goes into the courthouse. I don’t. I had no idea we were in that bad of shape. Today more than ever people need safety, which is what they are trying to get done. I think it’s a must,” she said.
Marsha Hoffman, a principal with SFS Architecture, led the 20-minute presentation and a question-and-answer session. She said the county had ruled out renovating the existing courthouse because at a cost of $216 million and 13 years for construction, it would be more expensive and take longer to complete in comparison to building the new structure.
When the current courthouse was built more than 60 years ago, the county’s population was 62,783. Today the county’s population is approximately 575,000 and that is expected to increase to 700,000 by 2025. Hoffman said the new courthouse would increase efficiency and position Johnson County to meet the projected space requirements for the next 75 years.
After the presentation, some in the audience said the proposed courthouse looked too modern in comparison to the architecture in the area. Others inquired about materials to be used for the building and whether brick, which had cracked and deteriorated over time on the existing courthouse, would be considered again.
Hoffman said building had not been designed yet.
“This is just a concept to give you an idea of the scale of the building,” she said. “The image of the building is something that will be developed when the project moves forward.”
Hoffman also spoke in detail about the security and the issue of inmates occupying public spaces that would be solved with the new courthouse. Many were surprised to learn the current courthouse lacks separate halls and quarters to keep inmates and criminals separate from the general public, judges, jurors and victims.
“We’ve had some concerns for some time,” District Attorney Steve Howe said. “I’ve had a couple cases where victims families come in close contact with defendants. In one murder case, the father ... came in close contact with the murderer who killed his daughter. That is never a good situation. It causes security concerns. We wish we had a better situation.”
Dennis and Julie Kauffman of Olathe, both 57, attended the open house and expressed a common concern about destroying the history of the existing courthouse.
“It’s a beautiful courthouse with marble and even if it wasn’t beautiful, it’s a part of our history here,” Julie said.
Dennis added, “We’re concerned about tearing another building down. I have no problem building another courthouse. It’s just why do they have to tear this one down? There’s got to be other uses for it.”
Waters said the existing courthouse was not on a historical registry and the county had not projected any use for preserving it if a new courthouse is built. Plans are for the existing courthouse to be demolished and replaced with a courtyard green space. Those costs are included in the $182 million estimate for the new courthouse.
“My first inclination always is to renovate and remodel, keep and restore,” Waters said. “We have done a lot of renovation work. Going forward replacing that building fills a substantial longstanding need,” he said.
The new courthouse and coroner building would be funded in one of three ways.
Option one is a 1/4 sales tax for 10 years. That would mean an extra 25 cents in sales tax to a $100 retail purchase.
Option two is a combination 1/8 sales tax and mill levy increase for 10 years. This would add 12.5 cents in sales tax to a retail purchase of $100 plus increase property tax by $2.85 a month, based on the 2015 average Johnson County home value of $261,000.
Option three is a 20-year mill levy increase that would increase property tax by $3.88 per month on the average home.
The proposed plan would solve these problems by constructing a modern courthouse with nine levels and 28 courtrooms across Sante Fe Street north of the existing building. The building would be 283,000 square feet and, at 180 feet, taller than the existing courthouse. The cost is estimated at $182 million, which includes demolition of the current building and work on the courtyard greenspace that would replace it. The project is expected to take four years.
The plan also includes a coroner’s facility that would be built near the county criminalistics lab on Sunset Drive in Olathe. It would be 29,000 square feet and cost about $19 million to construct. The county currently outsources autopsies to doctors who perform the work at a facility in Kansas City, Kan.
Waters said he was encouraged by the reception for the new courthouse.
“Not that everyone is saying oh my gosh, how can I get in line to support? But the curiosity to learn about what the issues might be,” Waters said. “They’re open-minded. It doesn’t surprised me, but I think that is a very good sign. People are curious and wanting to learn before they are asked to decide.”
The remaining open houses will each be held from 6 p.m. to 7:30.
April 4: Hilltop Learning Center, 7700 W. 143rd St., Overland Park
April 7: Thompson Barn, 11184 Lackman Road, Lenexa
April 11: Shawnee Town Hall, 11501 W 57th St., Shawnee