Johnson County officials are asking voters to approve a 1/4 cent sales tax increase in November to build a new courthouse and coroner’s laboratory.
County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert and District Attorney Steve Howe on Friday launched the “Vote Yes for Public Safety Campaign” at a press conference in front of the current courthouse in Olathe that opened in 1952.
“After looking at the facts, it was obvious this was the way to go,” Howe said. “It’ll cost more to renovate than build a new one. We can’t let it ride, major repairs have to be done.”
The cost of a new courthouse is estimated at $182 million while renovating the existing facility would cost about $216 million. Building a new coroner’s facility would cost an additional $19 million.
Eilert said when the existing courthouse opened, Johnson County had a population of 60,000 people. The population now is 580,000 and is projected to double in 50 years.
“We will have major issues if we don’t build,” he said.
If approved by voters Nov. 8, the 1/4 cent sales tax increase would yield about $30 million annually. Under state law, $10 million must be shared with cities, leaving $20 million for paying for the proposed facilities. The sales tax increase would end after 10 years.
Eilert said increasing the sales tax a quarter cent would push the county base sales tax to 8.9 cents, and in some cities with special taxing districts, 10 cents. In comparison, the base rate in Kansas City, MO is 8.35 cents.
To raise the same amount of money through property taxes would require a 2 1/2 to 3 mill increase over 10 years, or 1 1/2 mills over 20 years. A mill is $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Eilert said a 1/4 cent sales tax increase would add $1 to a $400 purchase.
“We all pay sales tax, but factoring in interest costs and how long it would take to finance, it makes more sense for a 1/4 cent sales tax increase,” he said.
If approved, the new courthouse would be nine-stories tall and have 28 courtrooms. It would be located west of Olathe City Hall and take four years to build. The existing courthouse would then be demolished.
Johnson County currently does not have its own coroner’s facility. It contracts with Wyandotte County for autopsies, and sends its toxicology test to an out-of-state lab. Between 250 and 300 autopsies are done annually. The coroner facility would be built at 119th Street and Ridgeview.
Eilert said the county has been discussing building a new courthouse for 15 years and all studies have indicated the need for new construction.
Repair costs have been mounting for the existing buildings. A recent elevator repair cost $1 million and the county is currently paying $5,000 a week to rent a chiller mounted on a flatbed to replace one that broke.