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Frequent Questions

Courthouse - Current

The original courthouse structure still in use is now 64 years old and it’s in a state of considerable disrepair. Some of the most significant problems with the current courthouse are:

  1. Aging infrastructure, which includes problems like cracked and crumbling interior and exterior walls and corroded and cracked pipes; all extremely expensive and these repairs have been delayed to prevent further spending if a decision is made to proceed with a new courthouse;
  2. Safety and security, which includes inmates using the same hallways as jurors, victims and witnesses, and the building being too close to the street;
  3. Accessibility issues such as no wheelchair access to the jury boxes and limited accessibility for wheelchairs throughout the building;
  4. Outdated technology, which among other concerns can make showing evidence to jurors more difficult during a trial; and
  5. Inadequate courtroom and meeting space, which leads to crowded courtrooms and hallways and little to no space for attorney-client meetings, often forcing private conversations to occur in public hallways.

For a better idea of the extent of these issues, please take a look at some of the photos we have online of the condition of the current courthouse; click here to access them. 

We also have a video online which provides an overview of the concerns as well as the proposed plan for a new courthouse and coroner facility, viewable here.

It’s the cumulative effect of all of these issues combined that make building a new courthouse our most cost-effective option, rather than continuing to sink money into the existing facility. It would be extremely challenging to make all of the necessary changes to the existing building simply because it was built to accommodate the needs of the county back in 1952, and things like layout are impossible to modify to today's needs. If we move forward with the proposal to build a new courthouse, it will be cheaper than renovating and adding on to the existing structure ($182 million for a new courthouse to be built in four years versus $216 million for the existing courthouse to be renovated with an addition built on to it).

If we move forward with building a new courthouse, the BOCC is considering a plan which currently proposes that the existing courthouse be torn down. Construction of the existing courthouse was completed in 1952 and since then there have been three additions to the building, seven significant remodels and a variety of ongoing maintenance repairs. The county has invested a lot of money in the courthouse building over the years, but the original structure is now 64 years old and today it is in a state of considerable disrepair. Some of the problems are difficult, if not impossible, to properly address given that it was built for the needs of the county during the 1950s and not for today's needs.

More than 400,000 people visit the Johnson County Courthouse each year. In a recent survey of Johnson County residents, conducted by ETC in Olathe, 48% of those surveyed said they had visited the courthouse in the past five years. 

We'll be evaluating what can be repurposed from the current courthouse into a new courthouse as a way to preserve some of the historical aspects if possible. One historic item that will be kept is the statue of Lady Justice, which is from the original Johnson County Courthouse, built in 1892. Other items like granite, marble and unique features might somehow be utilized in a new courthouse, but will need further review and cost evaluation. We'll need to continue to utilize the current courthouse while a new courthouse is built. This will make it somewhat more challenging to use historic features from the current courthouse in the new courthouse, unless it can be done without interfering with the building’s ongoing operations. More evaluation will be done into the possibilities of this as we move forward.

There are several reasons many courthouse studies have happened over the years. Individuals elected to serve on the Board of County Commissioners at various points during the past 15 years asked the county facilities staff to study the courthouse issue because the building has not been meeting the county’s needs for a long time. Following each of the studies, those serving on the county commission at the time of a particular study determined it best to remodel and add on to the courthouse rather than build a new facility. This was primarily because of the expense required to build a facility and the need for some type of tax increase to fund it. In addition, there were other projects and funding needs during those years that the Board of County Commissioners determined should take priority over the courthouse concerns at the time. Those included funding to support schools, improve the county’s jail, and a new crime lab.

During the recession, commissioners at the time wanted to avoid a tax increase for the courthouse and they also avoided a tax increase despite the county’s decreasing budget. Instead, they addressed $46 million in budget reductions by making numerous cuts to the county budget without increasing taxes. This included eliminating 428 full time staff positions (12% of the workforce), reducing and eliminating merit increases and spending down general fund reserves significantly. Last fall, the individuals serving on the current county commission determined it was important to look at the courthouse issues again, since the challenges with the facility remain and continue to grow.

Click here to view some of the studies that the various county commissions requested over the past 15 years. The presentations to the various commissions are also online at this same link. We also have copies of each of the studies in our county offices for anyone to review upon request. One benefit from all of these studies is that the current proposed plan is now a smaller building that is less costly. Another benefit of the studies has been the numerous operational changes that have led to improved efficiency, function and savings to the county and the courts.

Financing public safety sales tax

The proposed courthouse is a new 28-courtroom courthouse across Santa Fe Street north of the existing building. The courthouse will cost $182 million and will take four years to construct. 

A new coroner facility in Johnson County would cost $19 million. 

As decided by the Board of County Commissioners, costs for these new facilities would be paid for with a new 1/4 cent, 10-year public safety sales tax, if approved by the voters this November.

You can learn more about the public safety sales tax by taking a tour of the courthouse. Tours and presentations of the existing courthouse will be offered at 5 and 6 p.m. on the following dates:

Tuesday, Nov. 1

Please RSVP at 913-715-3300 and call 913-715-0725 at least 48 hours in advance if you require special accommodations to attend any of these meetings. 

Provide feedback about the public safety sales tax by contacting your county commissioner or emailing us your feedback at communications@jocogov.org.

If the sales tax isn't approved, the county will be required to come up with much more revenue to support the existing facility, and this will need to come from sources such as property tax and/or reduction in county services which range from mental health, corrections dept., Med-Act, development supports, to a variety of other services offered to our residents. No decision has been made as to where cuts would come from, but these would be on top of ongoing cuts the State of Kansas makes which are then passed on to counties and cities to pick up costs or reduce services locally. 

Click here for details regarding the approximately $216 million needed to expand and renovate the current building compared to the approximately $182 million needed for a new building. One of the main reasons it would be more expensive is because the existing courthouse would have to remain functional while the renovation and expansion take place. The project would take an estimated 13 years to complete. Additionally, it will cost approximately $155 million more over the next 20 years to operate and maintain the existing courthouse when compared to a new facility because of the aging infrastructure and inefficiencies of the building.

This public safety sales tax will end in 10 years and would only be extended if it is put to a ballot question at that time and voters approve renewing it. 

The State of Kansas requires any sales tax levied by the county to be shared among cities. The breakdown is 63 percent of sales tax revenue will come to the county to build a new courthouse and coroner facility, while 37 percent of the sales tax revenue goes to cities in Johnson County. This proposed 10-year sales tax would have to go back on the ballot for voter approval in order for it to be extended beyond 10 years.

The expense to renovate the former King Louie facility into the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center (tentatively set to open summer 2017) was a very small portion of the revenue needed for a courthouse, which the state requires the county to fund. Even without the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center project—which will replace the current aging Johnson County Museum facility and provide more and Johnson County Park and Recreation District program space—the county would still need additional revenue to fund building a new courthouse. The funds to renovate the former King Louie facility into the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center were covered through the existing county budget, which was done without a tax increase. 

Operating efficiently with county resources is a priority for leadership. During the recent recession the county made numerous reductions and kept the mill levy steady, including navigating $46 million in on-going budget reductions, eliminated 428 full time staff positions (approximately 12% of our workforce), reduced or eliminated merit increases for three years and spent down general fund reserves from 42 to 21%. More on the current budget and our services to residents is available on our website at jocogov.org.

The sales tax you pay on any given purchase within Johnson County depends on the rate where your purchase is made. Sales tax rates in the county currently range from 7.725 to 9.725%—from which 1.225% comes to Johnson County Government, 6.5% goes to the state of Kansas and between 1 and 2% go to the city where the purchase is made. Some areas in the county also have special taxing districts. Click here for a breakdown of the county’s 1.225% sales tax. 

We understand concerns about a sales and this is a challenging situation because we must provide a safe and secure courthouse for our residents (victims, jurors) and for those with accessibility issues.  There are only two funding options for a project of this size (property tax or sales tax). When we met with residents in the first part of the year to get public feedback, the majority of residents said a quarter-cent sales tax was preferred over a property tax. The idea of an additional $2.50 per month increase in sales tax for someone buying $1,000 worth of groceries and other retail items per month, was more acceptable than adding it to property taxes, plus this tax ends in 10 years which is stated in the ballot language online here: http://www.jocogov.org/ballot-language

State law requires that the county provide and maintain an adequate courthouse for the operations of the court system, which is a state operation. The state funds most of the court’s day-to-day operating expenses, but requires the county to fund construction and maintenance costs for the building. However, the state law does not authorize any funding sources for the courthouse. State laws do restrict the types of fees and taxes that the county can levy or charge, prohibiting the county from having any income related fees or fees that are excise taxes. Fees or fees for service would not be available for the county since the services are provided primarily by state operations and, in any event, would not be sufficient to cover the costs for a courthouse. The state does already impose some fees on attorneys and fines for criminals, which the state uses to fund court operations. The only sources available to the county to fund the courthouse are real estate taxes or sales taxes. The Board concluded that a sales tax limited to 10 years was preferable to a mill levy increase.  

Courthouse buildings are unique; they include features that make them quite different than standard office buildings. Estimated to cost $386 per square foot, the proposed new Johnson County Courthouse is in alignment with industry cost standards for courthouses of similar size and metropolitan locations. Standard office building costs can be half that. 

The following are cost drivers in a courthouse design:

  • Circulation: There are three distinct and separate circulation groups in a courthouse for inmate (secure), staff (and judiciary), and public. As a result, more finished floor space is built out for this circulation requirement.  This increases the cost per square foot over other types of  building construction.
     
  • Volume:  Much discussion is had about cost per foot of a building, but the necessity of larger ceiling heights in courtrooms require larger floor-to-floor heights and therefore more volume per sq ft than in other building types. This volume creates additional wall area and thus more cost per foot.
     
  • Audio/Visual and acoustic systems are necessary throughout the courtroom areas as well as public spaces, driving costs per foot higher.
     
  • Security: From the secure entry, which requires more area, to the holding cells, which are quite expensive per foot, the security nature of the building envelope and site make this building type very intense for security systems ranging from locking devices to camera systems, and can be $15-$25 per sq ft by themselves.
     
  • Mechanical systems in courtrooms require a lower volume air flow to suppress surges of noise in courtrooms. This is not about comfort as much as it is a recognition of the sensitive recording devices. This combined with large people loads at a wide variation of times, requires a more complex mechanical system to heat and cool the spaces and still conserve energy.
     
  • Structural systems can be more expensive than office environments because the larger spaces require more open span and the assembly occupancy of the courtrooms requires larger loading than do office environments.
     
  • Building envelopes of office buildings are typically designed around a developer-led building turnover with a specific number of years before anticipated renovations. As public buildings are more apt to span longer times between renovations of both interior and exterior materials, the courthouse is typically designed as a 50-100 year building rather than the 20-30 year projections on office buildings.

Click here for additional details about what would make a new courthouse more expensive than an office building.

As with all capital projects, the Board of County Commissioners will establish separate project budgets for a new courthouse and coroner facility. Should additional funding be necessary, it will go to the BOCC for approval. During the design phase for both projects, construction cost estimates will be prepared to ensure the facilities can be constructed within budget. Should those estimates indicate that a project cannot be constructed within budget, the design will be adjusted accordingly.

Courthouse - Future

If we don’t move forward with building a new courthouse, which would cost about $182 million and take four years to build, the alternative is to spend an estimated $216 million (based on a 2009 study, which includes projected inflation) on a 13-year renovation project. One reason it would cost so much and take so long is because we’d be doing construction on an occupied building; it would have to be done in phases so the court system could continue to operate in that building while construction is going on. One of the big drawbacks to that alternative is that it doesn’t set us up well for future generations, as would the option to construct a brand new building. Another deficit of this option is that it would not solve many of the concerns of the current courthouse which include making the entire facility fully accessible and ADA compliant, reconfiguration of the building’s layout which currently requires the public and inmates to use the same hallway space or reconfiguration of the small courtrooms where jurors and defendants are in close proximity, improvements to technology which would require completely gutting parts of the facility, and concerns with the current courthouse being located so close to the street, which is a considerable security vulnerability.

Should a new courthouse be constructed on the proposed site (directly north of the existing courthouse), the current parking lot directly to the west of the new courthouse site will be available to the public visiting the courthouse. There are a number of public parking lots in the downtown area and street parking, and the parking garage at the corner of Loula and Cherry would continue to serve the new courthouse.The parking study associated with the concept development for this project indicated more than 1,600 public parking spaces would be within 1,200 feet of the new courthouse. ADA parking will be provided in accordance with the law, meaning the appropriate number of ADA parking spaces will be placed in close proximity to the new courthouse building. The county and the city will continue to work together to assess and respond to parking needs in downtown Olathe associated with the construction of a new courthouse. There are around 45 secure underground parking spaces (under the proposed new building) for the District Attorney, judges, deputies, etc. are included in the project scope. 
 

One way it will help is to alleviate the problem the current courthouse has with inmate circulation. With the current building’s configuration there are times when inmates going into and out of courtrooms must be walked through public hallways, often near people involved with their trial, be they victims, victims’ family members, witnesses, jurors, etc. This can lead to intimidation or emotional distress for these individuals and even retraumatization of victims. Other ways building a new courthouse will improve the court system include: solving accessibility/ADA problems (many places inside and outside of courtrooms are difficult or impossible for people in wheelchairs to access and only one wheelchair at a time can use the lift up and down the stairs, making a quick emergency evacuation impossible for those individuals); providing new technology to aid in presenting evidence during trials; providing more courtrooms to alleviate the current problem of overcrowded courtrooms ; and providing space for mediation and attorney/client meetings (which today are often conducted in public hallways).

Inmates will be transported via underground tunnel, as they are now to the existing courthouse. The proposed new facility plan includes extending the existing tunnel from the northwest corner at the existing site, under Santa Fe, to the new courthouse. This is a shorter run of new tunnel (less expensive) than the alternative site considered which was the courtyard between the County Administration Building and the existing courthouse. 

If we do not move forward with building a new courthouse (which would cost about $182 million and take four years to build) the alternative is to spend an estimated $215.5 million (based on a 2009 study, which includes projected inflation) on a 13-year renovation project. One reason it would cost so much and take so long is because we’d be doing construction on an occupied building; thus the project would have to be done in phases so the court system could continue to operate in that building while construction is going on. One of the big challenges with that alternative is that it doesn’t set us up for the future because the aging building will still cost more to maintain and operate than a new building (approximately $155 million more over 20 years than a new facility). Renovating and adding on to the current building also won’t address many of the accessibility/ADA concerns and safety/security issues with inmate movement in public areas. To resolve those, it would require gutting parts of the building because the current layout doesn’t allow for the needed changes. We encourage you to visit http://www.jocogov.org/cost-details for a breakdown of the $182 million (build new) and $215.5 million (renovate and add on to existing building). A six minute video at www.jocopublicsafety.org also discusses this issue.

The proposed courthouse solution is to construct a new 28-courthroom courthouse across Santa Fe Street north of the existing courthouse building and directly west of Olathe City Hall in downtown Olathe. See map below.

Map of proposed new courthouse site

If a new courthouse is built, the county will keep the property where the current courthouse is and turn that area into green space. The county has looked into the idea of selling the property where the existing courthouse is, but has determined not to do this for the following reasons. The primary reason is the tunnel that connects the Central Booking Facility to the courthouse runs under the property where the existing courthouse is and this allows officials to take inmates securely through the tunnel over to the courthouse for court appearances. Even with a new courthouse built to the north, the current tunnel will remain in the same location and simply be extended to connect to the new courthouse.

The second reason to keep the property is to provide for future growth for many decades. A strategic facilities master plan for the county addresses this in more detail online: http://www.jocogov.org/sites/default/files/documents/FAC/SFMP1-4Planning%20Criteria.pdf. The county's master plan requires the land be kept for future use in case the county's growth requires additional building space at some point in the future. That is not anticipated now, but planners don't want the county to be landlocked and not be able to plan for future growth. Please see this slide presentation on our website (slide 9) regarding the future look of downtown if the public safety sales tax passes: http://www.jocogov.org/sites/default/files/documents/CMO/County-presentation-to-community-groups-July-2016.pdf

 

The current courthouse is 234,000 square feet with 23 courtrooms, and the proposed new courthouse is 283,000 square feet plus a 24,000 square feet of underground parking with 28 courtrooms. The property behind the courthouse would allow the county to expand to 36 courtrooms should that be needed with ongoing growth of the county. 

Currently, all autopsies performed by the Johnson County Coroner and his staff are conducted at a private facility in Kansas City, Kansas (we are not referring to private autopsies that may be requested by families or by physicians for non-law enforcement investigation purposes). The county spends about $550,000 annually for autopsy services from a private facility. While this facility provides the basic level of service, the District Attorney and county coroner believe Johnson County residents are at a significant disadvantage by not having a county facility. 

Using this outside facility limits the number of autopsies we conduct which means we are likely missing important information needed to determine that a crime has been committed, or to identify a new or unusual disease in our community. If we had our own facility, we would be able to conduct many more autopsies on suspicious or unusual deaths that currently simply cannot be done. This would help us to identify trends from potential emerging disease outbreaks, as well as trends in crime, addiction, abuse including elder abuse, and other issues that currently go unrecognized or unreported, and therefore, are not being addressed. 

We know these autopsies are not happening because Johnson County does not conduct autopsies at a rate in accordance with our population, national benchmarks and other peer metropolitan counties. This puts our community at risk. 

A new, county owned and managed coroner facility provides:

  • Control over the prioritization of the county’s autopsy work allowing us to complete more autopsies and to get vital information needed.
  • An on-site toxicology lab providing more effective and reliable investigative results
  • A modern, accredited facility with appropriate separation of key functions including ventilation systems designed for elimination of hazardous exposures
  • Real time data reporting for epidemics and crime
  • Space for autopsy observations
  • Space which is supportive for decedent’s family members
  • Ability to accommodate future growth in medicolegal death investigations
  • Support for mass fatality events

Please see jocogov.org/coroner-facility for more information.