Government & Politics

Sales tax for Johnson County Courthouse construction is placed on November ballot

Johnson County Commissioners crossed the final “t” last week to put a new county courthouse before the voters, but not without some last-minute tension over what information should be included on the ballot.

The commission voted 4-3 to ask voters to approve a quarter-cent countywide sales tax for a 10-year period to pay for a new courthouse and coroner’s facility. Commissioners John Toplikar, Michael Ashcraft and Jason Osterhaus voted against the proposal.

The vote Thursday was the final action needed to bring the question before voters. County officials have been studying their options for adding courthouse space for the better part of 15 years. The current courthouse, built in the 1950s, has wheelchair accessibility, security and energy efficiency issues that could be most efficiently addressed if the building is demolished and replaced with a new building just across Santa Fe Street to the north, the majority decided.

The lab for autopsies would be built at 119th Street and Ridgeview Drive in Olathe. The county currently outsources its autopsies to a lab in Kansas City, Kan.

Together, the building projects are estimated to cost $201 million, with $182 million for the courthouse and $19 million for the coroner’s building.

The county estimates that the quarter-cent tax would bring in $392.6 million over 10 years. Of that, $145.7 million would go to the cities and $246.9 million to the county, which would cover the costs for the new courthouse and new coroner facility as well as $43 million in interest and other costs.

Commissioners briefly became entangled Thursday in questions over what should be included in the ballot language before the vote. After looking at the question written by the county’s legal staff, Osterhaus proposed adding information on the costs of the project and a breakout of how the money would be spent.

An ensuing conversation between Toplikar and Commission Chairman Ed Eilert became testy when Toplikar asked if extra money the tax raises could be spent on mental health or other public safety issues besides the courthouse, since the question mentions “public safety projects.”

Some of the county’s mental health budget is spent on programs to get mentally ill people who have broken laws appropriate treatment rather than jail time.

Sales tax amounts fluctuate and the county does not know whether the tax will generate more than is needed for the building projects, Eilert said, but future commissions can end it before the 10 years are up if that happens.

Mental health funding may be negatively affected by the state budget this year.

“If you’re going to spend this much money on a building and you have a program in place that you don’t know how you’re going to fund, could this money be used?” Toplikar asked.

Eilert said Toplikar was raising a “straw horse” with the question.

“I don’t know how it could be any clearer,” that the money is to be spent on the courthouse building, Eilert said.

“Mr. Chairman, I’m just raising the issue,” Toplikar replied.

Eilert added later that if the commission wanted to put the cost breakdown into the ballot, perhaps it should also include information on comparative costs to keep the current building running. Previous county studies have shown higher operating costs to use the current building.

However Don Jarrett, the commission’s legal counsel, cautioned against adding too much other information into the ballot because it could cause future legal problems.

Toplikar said he voted against the issue because all of issues on accessibility for those with disabilities could be addressed by spending far less — $13.1 million. He said that figure comes from previous studies presented to the commission.

He said he opposed the idea of tearing down the current courthouse. “When you talk about tearing it down, to me that’s the worst part,” he said after the meeting. “A perfectly usable, adequate building would be gone. It’s one of the best courthouses in the state, if not the best.”

Toplikar called the arguments against spending more to redo an aging building “sort of fluff.” All buildings are aging and need money for upkeep, he said. He also said the courthouse is not as crowded as some people argue, and that more space is only needed at certain times.