It was tucked way down, below table level in one of the smaller jury rooms. People on a tour of the Johnson County Courthouse had to crane a bit to see it.
But there it was, the legendary bug “zapper” that keeps away stray sewer flies that occasionally find their way out of old pipes from the former jail in the floor above.
The zapper – actually it doesn’t zap but kills by bluish light – has become an embarrassing symbol of sorts for those who say the county courthouse has too many costly problems to keep on spending money to fix. It is maybe not the courthouse’s biggest problem, but it’s one the people on a tour of the 64-year-old building will likely remember.
County officials have been urging citizens for the past several weeks to come on tours to learn about the courthouse in preparation for Nov. 8, when they will be asked to decide on a quarter-cent rise in the sales tax to build a new one. The tax will also pay for a new lab for autopsies.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
A recent tour group negotiated step after step in courtrooms that were not wheelchair accessible. They saw hallways where, because of the layout, murder victims’ families unexpectedly found themselves face-to-face with the accused killers. They examined ceiling tiles deformed by persistent roof leaks and peered out a window at a crack in the brickwork that extended seven to eight stories up the building.
In the long run, say supporters of the tax increase, a new building will be cheaper and provide better space for a growing population than continuing efforts to add on and remodel.
“We’re done pulling a rabbit out of the hat,” to find more space, said District Attorney Steve Howe during one recent tour.
Those against argue that the county could be more economical and serve more people by making fixes on the existing building. They say the county should prioritize human services needs above a building project.
The quarter-cent added to the sales tax would be charged county-wide over a 10-year period beginning April 1, 2017.
It would raise about $390 million, with 37 percent of that going to Johnson County cities, as required by state law. According to the ballot language, the county can use its share of revenue for public safety projects, specifically the demolition of the current courthouse in downtown Olathe, the building of a new one and the building of a coroner’s facility, as well as other expenses related to those projects.
The county proposes a new nine-level courthouse directly across the street from the existing building and to the north. The new facility would expand space to 28 courtrooms from the current 23, and would have a floor plan that keeps the juries, defendants and victims or plaintiffs separated — one of the big deficiencies often mentioned about the current courthouse. It would also be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and would have better security features.
The building is expected to last 75 years.
The coroner’s lab would be built just a few steps from the current crime lab and health department offices at 119th Street and Ridgeview Drive in Olathe. The new lab would provide facilities suitable for gathering trace evidence and DNA for modern autopsies. Currently, Johnson County’s autopsies are outsourced to a lab in Kansas City, Kan. whose facilities are not up to modern evidence gathering techniques, say county law enforcement officials.
The courthouse project will cost about $182 million and the coroner’s lab another $19 million to build. A majority of commissioners are convinced that putting up a new building will be less expensive than keeping the current one.
By their estimates, renovating and expanding the current building at 100 N. Kansas Ave. to add a four-story addition will cost about $216 million and will take longer to complete — 13 years versus four. That’s because the existing courthouse would still be in use and work would have to be done in off hours. That option would leave the county with higher operating expenses because of energy inefficiencies and would not include a coroner’s lab, according to studies done by the county.
It’s been a long, slow road to get to this point. County commissioners have been looking at a new courthouse for the better part of 15 years and have spent $1.7 million on consultants over that time.
Population growth was the primary concern of some of the earliest discussions and studies. A plan discussed in 2008 called for 36 courtrooms at a cost of as much as $441 million.
But space estimates have changed since then. Case filings have not kept up with earlier projections and technology has reduced the number of personnel and the amount of storage space needed for paper files.
Still, the population increase does figure into the arguments for a new building. The current courthouse, built in 1952 to replace the original 1895 courthouse, originally served a population of 63,000. There have been additions since then to keep up with a county population that is now around 580,000.
The current building is decidedly unfriendly for wheelchair use. That much is agreed upon by everyone involved — even opponents of the sales tax. It’s also a problem the commission will have to address, even if the sales tax is not approved.
Problems are evident from the minute a visitor ascends the steps to the main south entrance. The only way a wheelchair user can continue up the interior steps is in a wheelchair lift that requires assistance from a sheriff’s deputy at the security checkpoint. That lift is only recently back in commission after about two months when it had broken down. Repairs were delayed because of difficulty finding parts, said Brad Reinhardt, director of facilities management.
Once inside, the barriers continue with narrow doorways, inaccessible bathrooms, steps up into jury boxes and witness stands and seating that doesn’t allow for wheelchairs.
Commissioners agree that the county needs to do better for people with disabilities, and have said they want to make repairs a high priority. But even if they didn’t, the ADA rules require at least minimal access once remodeling begins.
Minimal access means wheelchair accessibility in at least one of each of the six categories of courtrooms the county has. Right now only one courtroom meets the criteria. The upgrade will cost about $13 million. A new building would be 100 percent ADA compliant.
But fixing the accessibility may cause another problem. According to some courthouse studies the commission looked at, extra space may be needed to get ramps to the right slope in those courtrooms, and that could mean enlarging those rooms at the expense of other courtrooms.
Bug lights to deter sewer flies are only one of a long list of physical problems of the building. In just the past five years, the county has undertaken several courthouse repairs, some of which have caused major inconveniences to visitors and delays in trials.
A $1 million elevator replacement a year ago, for example, slowed a major trial and other courtroom activity to a snail’s pace as people lined up for the single working elevator, Howe said. Making the problem worse was the need to keep jurors separated from witnesses.
More recently, one of two motors on the building’s air-conditioning system broke down. The malfunction meant the county had to bring in a portable chiller as an emergency backup for the working motor. Renting that unit cost over $800 a day, but was covered by a service contract.
The list goes on.
The county puts off what it can, but continues to make repairs when safety is an issue, he added. “All the systems are aging. Replacing them is very challenging.”
Security and function
A big problem for Howe and other officers of the court is the layout of the building itself. Hallways are often backed up with lawyers, clients, family members and onlookers because of a lack of conference rooms. When that happens, a chance encounter between parties has the potential to derail a trial.
While Howe couldn’t attribute any mistrials to problems in the hallway, there have been some uncomfortable and disturbing moments, he said.
Inmates come over from the jail through a tunnel, up a special elevator and down the same public hallway everyone else uses to get to the courtroom.
In one instance, sheriff’s deputies had to separate opposing gang members who were starting to trade words, he said.
Another time, “I was trying a murder case and was bringing the family members down the hall. We came around the corner and literally came face to face with the person charged with killing their daughter,” he said.
“You’re playing with fire when you have to put people in those situations that are highly emotional,” he said.
And it’s not only criminal trials that can be a problem. Emotions often run high in civil suits and divorce matters that don’t involve the transport of prisoners.
Close proximity to jury members also could cause problems, Howe said. Jury rooms in some cases are only a few feet away from inmate holding areas, increasing the likelihood of contact that could cause legal issues.
Lack of technology also can make trials difficult, he said. The biggest courtroom with the highest-profile cases also is the least adaptable for modern equipment needed to display the evidence the most clearly, he said.
The new sales tax will also give the county a state-of-the art lab for conducting autopsies. The new lab would have a modern air handling and separation of autopsy areas to protect against cross-contamination of microscopic evidence. Howe said it also would result in quicker death certificates and toxicology reports than the two to four weeks that is currently the norm.
That’s important when the health department needs to monitor potential disease outbreaks like the recent tuberculosis scare at Olathe Northwest High School, he said.
Howe said the current arrangement and its delays have likely resulted in the county doing fewer autopsies and perhaps missing deaths that were other than natural. A new facility will allow the county to keep up with population growth and meet future accreditation standards, say Howe and other proponents.
Questioning the need
While commissioners generally agree the courthouse has deficiencies that need to be addressed, not all are on board with the building plan that’s going on the ballot.
Commissioner John Toplikar, for instance, will vote “no” in November. Toplikar said the courthouse problems could be dealt with more cheaply by fixing the existing building and using money from existing public safety sales taxes.
The county already has two quarter-cent public safety sales taxes that have no expiration date, he said. The first one was enacted in 1995 for a new corrections facility and the second one, in 2008, built the new county crime lab. Each of them raises about $18 million a year, and one of them, because of its ballot language, could definitely be used for courthouse projects, he said.
The minimal accessibility issues could be resolved for about $13.1 million, he said. “I very much believe that the issues can be addressed. We shouldn’t be waiting four years. If you truly believe that it is an emergency problem it should be addressed right now,” he said.
Toplikar also dislikes the idea of tearing down the current courthouse, which he estimates is a $150 million asset, especially after the county has already spent so much money on repairs and remodeling. He compared lingering repair work to home ownership.
“We all have to replace windows every now and then. It’s no reason to bulldoze our homes. I think there are new ways of fixing up old buildings,” he said.
The coroner’s facility was added to the mix late, he said. Although he agreed autopsies are important, Toplikar said he’d not heard any complaints about the facility until the commission got serious about the courthouse. “I think it was being used as a sort of a ploy to get people to take the courthouse issue seriously,” he said.
County staffers could not validate Toplikar’s $150 million estimate, but said the courthouse building replacement cost would be about $56 million, not including contents.
Commissioner Michael Ashcraft also expressed reservations about the courthouse/coroner’s plan. Technical improvements may continue to eliminate the need for courtroom hearing space, he said. The current courthouse model has been around for a century, but “what should the 21st century courthouse look like?”
He also was skeptical about the late addition of the forensics lab.
In an article in the county-published magazine The Best Times, Ashcraft suggested that people who favor putting the money into a building should ask themselves if the money might be better spent on mental health services and aid to those with disabilities.
“This goes back to what are our priorities going to be,” he said later. “The courthouse versus what I think are just as important if not greater needs.”