Johnson County voters will be asked this fall if they want to raise sales taxes — again. This time, the county wants to build a new courthouse.
The county’s honchos, summoning their best get-off-my-lawn voices, insist the new structure is made necessary by the decline of the midcentury modern courthouse now in use. It’s a familiar argument, and one that usually works: Over the years, Johnson Countians have shown themselves remarkably willing to pull out the public checkbook to build new stuff.
New school buildings routinely pop up like daisies. The county’s first-class jail puts some state prison complexes to shame.
The proposed courthouse and coroner’s facility fits the pattern. It would cost more than $200 million, about twice as much as the General Services Administration spent on the federal courthouse downtown.
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Yet one wonders if the area’s voters have reached an inflection point in their customary support for more bricks and mortar.
It’s now commonly believed that young adults value personal experiences over material acquisition — a fun vacation instead of a car, a great meal instead of a new lamp. My adult children listen to music they download to a phone. The joy is hearing the tune, not owning it.
What’s true on a personal level seems equally true in broad social terms. The downtown sidewalks were filled again last Friday, with great food and drink and conversation. Streetcar riders jumped on the train for the enjoyment of the ride, not because they needed it to actually get somewhere. Sidewalk restaurant seats, once a rarity in Kansas City, are everywhere.
At some point — and we may be getting close to it — younger taxpayers may want to see their money spent on things they want: transportation, amenities, the arts, better lives. They’ll put up with slightly worn seats and peeling paint in a courthouse in exchange for something that makes them smarter, or happier, or more engaged with their community.
Public values are changing, and quickly.
Whether those changing attitudes will affect the Johnson County courthouse vote is an open question. Voters in Johnson County have a much more mixed record, however, when it comes to spending public money on amenities like the arts.
Twenty years ago, Johnson Countians easily approved a bistate sales tax to build the Science City Museum and fix Union Station, a project that now seems on firm footing after years of wobble. Eight years later, though, the same voters rejected Bistate II, a proposed sales tax hike for arts and sports projects in the metropolitan area.
Bistate II supporters still argue over why voters said no. Some blame the Truman Sports Complex subsidies that were part of the package; others think the arts part was too nebulous to pass Johnson County muster. Johnson County chairman Ed Eilert — the guy now pushing the courthouse — was lukewarm on Bistate II as well.
But the idea of spending tax money on something other than concrete and glass won’t die. In 2013, a special Kansas City arts task force issued a report that contained a quiet whisper: “At some point in the future, there may be the political will to revive discussion of the bistate taxing district to support arts and culture.”
As it turns out, the area still has something called the Metropolitan Culture District, which meets quietly a couple of times a year. It could accept and distribute tax revenue intended to “enhance the aesthetic, artistic, historic, intellectual or social development of the general public.”
Sounds like something a millennial might find interesting while visiting their parents’ midcentury modern courthouse in Olathe.