Everybody has an opinion on what to do with Kansas City’s airport.
Not many have formed an opinion on the ballot proposal in November for the construction of a new Johnson County Courthouse in Olathe. In fact, it is likely very few even know such a proposal will be on the ballot.
The new courthouse measure could go down to defeat, a result of a shortsighted, knee-jerk reaction to vote “no” to any tax increase of any kind for any purpose. Apathy could also kill it. Few residents go to the courthouse, so it is usually out-of-sight and out-of-mind.
On the November ballot — located in the last position after the judges — is a proposal for a countywide quarter-cent sales tax increase for 10 years to build a greatly needed new courthouse.
The new nine-story courthouse would replace a facility built in 1952 to serve a population then of only 60,000. The county’s population has increased by more than a half million. Consultants have been studying this for 15 years, and every report comes back the same: Demolish the old one. Build a new one.
In sharp contrast to the controversial Kansas City International Airport, there are few hardcore fans clamoring to keep the existing courthouse. What’s to like? It is in need of major renovation; it is noncompliant for the disabled; there are not enough courtrooms; its security is poor; and it is energy inefficient.
That’s not all. The way the courthouse is configured, inmates in handcuffs are ushered down the same halls that link the courtrooms. A criminal and the victim could literally run into each other.
The cost of a new courthouse and a proposed coroner’s building is $201 million. Maintaining and expanding the existing courthouse over the next 20 years would run about $439 million. A sales tax is the best way to fund construction. Nearly a fourth of sales tax revenue comes from shoppers outside of the county. More than a third of the sales tax revenue collected goes to cities for roads, sidewalks and public safety.
The alternative is to limp along with extensive ongoing repairs and expand the courthouse one piece at a time.
A coroner’s building, with modern technology for autopsies, is also part of the proposal. The facility is necessary to collect and analyze evidence. Currently, the county outsources its autopsies to a facility in Kansas City, Kan., which is not accredited and has no on-site equipment for toxicology analysis.
The campaign to pass this crucial courthouse proposal faces steep obstacles that have nothing to do with opposition, which, so far, has been minimal. Its message will be drowned out by hot campaigns for president, Congress, the Legislature, the Kansas Board of Education and the highly charged issue of retaining several Kansas Supreme Court justices. There will be little opportunity to get the word out about the courthouse.
In fact, most voters will be surprised to find it on the ballot, if they even get that far down the ballot.
There is an alternative to voting yes, but it’s not pretty.
If a new courthouse is not funded with the quarter-cent sales tax over 10 years, the inevitable will occur. Extensive renovations will commence on the 65-year-old building at a higher cost than building new, and it will be funded with the unpopular property tax.
A “yes” vote on this obscure but important measure would allow the county to bring its courthouse and coroner facility into the 21st century at the most reasonable cost.
Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org.