Should Johnson County Renovate Or Replace Its Aging Courthouse? Voters Will Decide

Oct 14, 2016

Updated, 3 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17:

The Johnson County courthouse is old, outdated and doesn’t meet accessibility standards – now it’s up to voters to decide if it should be replaced.

A proposed 1/4-cent sales tax would pay for a new, $182 million courthouse to be built just across Santa Fe Street from the existing courthouse in Olathe.

“We have security issues in the public hallways,” Ed Eilert, chairman of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners, told KCUR’s Steve Kraske on Up To Date. “Prisoners, victims, jurors come face-to-face.”

Building new would also allow Johnson County to build a coroner facility. Currently, the county contracts coroner services to Wyandotte County at a cost. Eilert says that arrangement doesn’t offer toxicology or trace evidence analysis in-house.

But opponents say they’d rather see the existing courthouse renovated.

“The resources in Johnson County are numerous,” says Commissioner Michael Ashcraft. “It’s a very wealthy, modern, progressive community, but like any community, we have our limits.”

Ashcraft says Johnson County might be better served by a less extensive renovation of the existing courthouse, the oldest parts of which date back to the 1950s. He says bringing it fully up to code – including technology, egress and Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations – would cost between $43.5 million and $71.6 million, according a report county staff presented it to commissioners.

The ADA portion would cost around $13 million, Ashcraft wrote in an email to KCUR.

But Eilert jumped in to dispute those numbers. He puts the cost of ADA renovations alone at $80 million.

“We have to make six courtrooms of the 23 fully accessible. That means you would have to remove about four existing courtrooms. To keep the number of courtrooms at the same number, we would have to build another structure attached to the existing structure of at least six to eight courtrooms to meet our 28 courtroom target.”

Eilert added that if the county were to renovate instead of rebuild, they’d have to pay a premium to have work done on nights and weekends, when court isn’t in session.

Ashcraft says filings are down in Johnson County, and the courthouse isn’t as heavily trafficked as the library or the post office. He says he’d rather see the county invest in mental health services.

But Eilert pointed out those funds come out of a different pot – they’d have to be paid for by a property tax hike, not the public safety sales tax.

The election is Nov. 8.

Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.