Johnson County officials want to build a new courthouse and coroner facility for about $200 million, not including interest. Both are needed, worthwhile projects. Voters have adequate reasons — with a caveat noted later — to approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the Nov. 8 ballot.
A new courthouse will reduce operating costs vs. upgrading the current, older building. The new facility will have more courtrooms. It will better separate inmates from the public. The new courthouse will be fully accessible to people with disabilities. The sales tax option is reasonable vs. boosting the property tax. (Find more information on the projects here.)
Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert told me Tuesday that he and others trying to sell the tax “always get a positive response” at the dozens of presentations they have made for it. Of course, voters will make that final call.
However, here’s the reason for a hesitant “yes” on this tax.
Kansas law requires county sales taxes such as this one to be split with cities, giving them a whopping 37 percent of the revenue raised. That’s an estimated $140 million of this sales tax over 10 years. Few people know this. And the cities too often don’t tell voters what they are going to do with the funds.
I contacted officials in Overland Park and Olathe, which could get $43 million and $33 million, respectively, from this tax over the next decade.
Sean Reilly, manager of communication for the city manager in Overland Park, responded by email: “We do not have an approved plan. The City Manager has recommended using it on needed capital improvements. A few Councilmembers proposed looking at rolling back the mill levy increase approved in the 2017 budget. Therefore, no decision has been made.”
Tim Danneberg, communication director for the city manager in Olathe, said via email: “The Council has yet to determine what would be done with that money.”
Other cities that will get fairly large sources of revenue include Lenexa ($17.6 million), Shawnee ($16.4 million), Leawood ($11.7 million), Prairie Village ($5.4 million), Gardner ($4.8 million), Merriam ($3.3 million) and Mission ($2.3 million).
On a more positive note, many leaders of Johnson County’s well-run cities very likely will put this money into one-time expenses, such as building a road or fixing a bridge. They won’t pour the funds into starting a new program that then could require a tax increase of its own in a decade when the county-provided funds go away.
I get that. But it’s also a bug in the system. The state law should make it clear where the diverted sales tax revenues have to go, such as into capital improvements. In addition, the cities should be much more upfront with citizens in telling them how they plan to use money provided by this kind of tax.
Back to the courthouse and coroner’s facility.
Johnson County has long prided itself on having top-notch public assets, including parks, libraries and roads. The original portions of the courthouse were built in 1952, with other parts added in the 1960s and 1970s. While critics claim the county could get decades more use out of the structures, consultants have pointed out the financial downsides of trying to do that, basically because of higher operating expenses.
It’s time, after more than five years of seriously studying this matter, to make a decision. Johnson County voters will get a first-class courthouse for decades to come by endorsing the quarter-cent sales tax next month.