The need for a new Johnson County courthouse crashed head-on into plans to refurbish the former King Louie bowling alley as county commissioners made their final vote adopting a 2014 budget last week.
The result: For a few minutes anyway, it looked as if the commission would abandon its plan to put offices and the county museum into the former bowling alley at 8788 Metcalf Ave.
In a 4-3 vote that took some commissioners by surprise, a majority seemed ready to walk away from plans to convert the King Louie into space for the county enterprise center, early voting and a new home for the Johnson County museum. But after some impassioned argument from supporters of the plan, the vote was rescinded and the King Louie conversion was back on.
The commission ultimately approved the $842.8 million budget without much change from the form it was in at a public hearing July 29 — but only after almost three hours considering 10 motions by commissioners who wanted to make last-minute changes.
Both the King Louie purchase and the courthouse have been controversial in the past. The commission bought the King Louie building in 2011 for $2 million. Originally, there were plans to put a national museum of suburbia in it, but they have not gained traction.
Commissioner Steve Klika brought up the issue by saying he isn’t convinced the county will get enough value from the $7 million it proposes to fix up King Louie building. “On the other hand, we have a white elephant in the room and that happens to be the courthouse,” he said. He then moved to quit funding the rehabilitation and sell the building, with proceeds going into a new courthouse.
When the commission voted on the first half of the motion — to remove funding from the project — Klika got the support of members Michael Ashcraft, John Toplikar and Jason Osterhaus. However, it was not clear that those three commissioners also would support the second half of the motion, which was to put money into a new courthouse. Ashcraft has said he does not support spending on a new courthouse.
Supporters of the King Louie project reacted in disbelief. “I think that’s a mistake. A major mistake, quite frankly,” said Chairman Ed Eilert. The county could save money on rent when it moves the enterprise center and other offices into the building, he said.
Commissioner Jim Allen called it “one of the most disappointing votes I’ve been involved in.”
Eilert, Allen and Ed Peterson then questioned how the county should proceed on plans to relocate the county museum, which has been plagued by flooding and mold problems. They also pointed out that if the county tries to sell the King Louie building now, it might end up losing money.
Klika countered that the bowling alley conversion takes the focus away from the larger issue of the courthouse. The county should build a new courthouse, he said, rather than “throwing good money after bad,” repairing the old one. He also said the museum could partner with the county library system for space.
But recognizing that abandoning the King Louie might “put us into a pickle,” Klika moved to rescind the previous motion, asking the other commissioners to seriously consider building a new courthouse. “Otherwise, I am going to find myself constantly at odds with the commission on the King Louie building,” he said. “The issue is not going to go away.”
The motion to rescind passed, with Osterhaus, Ashcraft and Toplikar voting against it.
The commission voted down a number of other proposals before approving the budget. Among them: A proposal by Ashcraft to remove funding from one-time capital improvement projects including a gym floor at the juvenile detention center with the money used to reduce taxes; a plan by Ashcraft to reduce the 3 percent merit raise pool for county employees to 2 percent, with the money redirected into the county developmentally disabled services; Toplikar’s proposal to drop the about $60,000 it spends on lobbying in Topeka and have the county’s public information officers take it over; Klika’s plan to add a $5 transaction fee to drivers license renewals requested at the Department of Motor Vehicle satellite sites.
The only substantial change to the budget as published was a vote to reduce both expenditures and revenue to the Department of Mental Health by $5.4 million. Commissioners said that was necessary because the department had not come up with its own budget cuts.