Joco 913

Options discussed for Johnson County courthouse financing

The Johnson County Commission has allowed architects to proceed with a plan to tear down the existing courthouse.
The Johnson County Commission has allowed architects to proceed with a plan to tear down the existing courthouse. File photo

A new facility for autopsies has been added to the mix as the Johnson County Commission looks at financing for a new courthouse.

The facility, at a separate location from the courthouse, would be used by the coroner’s office and would cost in the neighborhood of $22.5 million. The coroner’s facility is now being considered as part of the total financing for the courthouse, which would cost about $185 million, for a total project cost of about $207.5 million.

That estimate includes demolition of the existing courthouse, but not the interest. That amount fluctuates depending on what method the commission decides to use to finance it. The building program is likely to be put up for a public vote.

Commissioners heard analyses of the costs and looked at floor plans during a committee meeting last week. The current design for the courthouse that architects are moving forward with would have nine floors including two below ground and would be, at 180 feet, the tallest building in downtown Olathe.

Plans for the coroner’s facility are not as far along as those for the courthouse, said facilities manager Brad Reinhardt. No location for it has been decided upon, but planners are considering the areas around the county criminal lab or the communications center on Sunset Drive in Olathe, he said.

When autopsies are requested, the county currently hires from a list of doctors who have agreed to do them. The work is done at the First Call Morgue in Kansas City, Kan. A new coroner’s building would mean the work could be done within the county. County officials have not asked for staff to replace the private contractor system now used for autopsies, however.

The courthouse and coroner’s facility are still in the study stages, as commissioners winnow down their choices. No final decisions have been made, but so far the commission has allowed architects to proceed with a plan to tear down the existing courthouse and erect a single replacement just across Santa Fe Street to the north.

At the meeting last week, a rough outline of the looks of that building began to emerge, along with options on how it might be financed.

Commissioners reviewed three basic ways of paying for the construction: Additional property tax, sales tax or a combination of the two.

The property tax method spans 20 years, with additional mills generating revenue for $14.9 million in debt service for each of those years. The levy the first year, 2017, would be 1.68 mills, but it would drop to 0.78 mills by the last year, on the assumption that the assessed value of property would grow during that time. A mill equals $1 of tax per each $1,000 of taxable value.

The sales tax method is based on a quarter-cent sales tax over 10 years, with annual debt service at $25.13 million each year.

The combination method is the more complex of the three. That proposal includes an eighth-cent sales tax for 10 years and a 0.61 mill levy for 20 years.

Each of those comes with a different overall cost to the county. The sales tax, with its shorter payoff time, comes in cheapest with a total principal and interest cost of $251.3 million. The sales tax-mill levy combo would cost $268.3 million and the mill levy, $298 million.

Commissioners mostly listened and asked questions during presentations by the architect and county staffers. Commission Chairman Ed Eilert expressed a personal preference for the sales tax option, but no votes were taken.

The commission also may explore some type of public/private partnership. Reinhardt said three developers have contacted the county to inquire about the idea of building the courthouse with private financing and then leasing it back to the county. No specific plans were detailed at the meeting, but commissioners asked to hear more about it at upcoming meetings in January.

The floor plan recommended by architects would give the county a courthouse substantially taller than the existing one, which is 115 feet. Architects will continue to refine the design, which envisions the building in the shape of an X, with longer legs stretching toward the county buildings to the south and shorter legs toward the residential area to the north. It would be built with a 75-year life expectancy.

The building would have two sub-levels for parking, docks and inmate transfer from the jail across the intersection; three levels for court support, jury services and the district attorney’s office, and six levels for courtroom space. The design also includes security features such as an entryway that would allow officers to address any security risks before they get into the courthouse proper.

Commissioners also heard an assessment of a proposal to move traffic and small claims courts out of the courthouse, to free up more courtroom space. However, District Judge Kevin Moriarty told the commission that move would result in extra costs for transporting people in custody for DUI, for example, to the different locations for their hearings and would result in wasted time for support staffers. The commission did not push that plan further along.

After years of study and indecision, the courthouse plan is now on a faster track. Commissioners will hold at least two more meetings on the subject in January, with more on the coroner’s proposal coming Jan. 21 and a clearer picture of financing on Jan. 28. Meetings for public input could take place as early as February, March or April.