Johnson County’s decision to buy and rehab the former King Louie West bowling alley will save taxpayers money in the long run, say county commissioners who still favor the plan. However one commissioner had enough qualms about the idea that he registered a protest “no” vote on approval of a contract for some building maintenance.
The Johnson County Commission spent part of its meeting last week reviewing and, in some cases, defending its decision to buy the vacant building a year ago. When it came time for a vote on a $915,000 contract for basic repairs to stabilize the building, though, Commissioner Michael Ashcraft was the sole “no” vote.
That’s not because he wants the building to fall down, he said. Rather, Ashcraft worries that each new spending decision on the building will lead to another that further commits the county to a spending plan that should be examined in more detail.
The county’s purchase of the building at 8788 Metcalf Ave. in Overland Park came about originally because of the need for a new place to house the Johnson County Museum, which is now in Shawnee. The museum has suffered a chronically wet basement from ground water.
Commission Chairman Ed Eilert reminded listeners that the commission waited for the asking price on the building to drop from $3.5 million to $2 million and was able to get another $50,000 knocked off after inspections.
The county will have to spend about $1.6 million to for basic improvements that would restore water and power, get rid of asbestos and weatherproof the building and for roofing. The contract approved last week is included in that cost.
But the county won’t be done after that. An additional $4.5 million will be needed to get the building in good enough shape for tenants to move in, said Joe Waters, county facilities manager. And if the museum is the first tenant, it will take another $4.5 million to move it into the new space, he said.
That brings the total investment to around $12 million to get the museum relocated. The commission has discussed additional uses for the building after that, including as an overnight parking area for buses or as space for advanced voting or other county agencies. Those ideas have potential to save money for operations and leases, commissioners have said.
“Twelve million dollars for the museum: Is that the best use of $12 million, given all our other needs?” Ashcraft asked his fellow commissioners. Later, he said he would like to see more debate on other ways to provide the same services without acquiring new property.
For instance, does the museum need a stand-alone facility or could it be somehow integrated into the library, he said. “We are wrapping ourselves around the same antiquated thinking about how we used to do government,” he said. “It’s a 19th-century model rather than a 21st-century model.”
However other commissioners disagreed, pointing out that the county will recoup at least some of the cost when it sells other properties.
Commissioner James Allen said the county has always bought or built with an eye for saving tax dollars. “I don’t think the county has a history of building Taj Mahals,” he said. “We are the largest county in Kansas. We have a lot of demands and provide a lot of services.”
“This is saving taxpayer dollars in the long run,” said Commissioner Calvin Hayden. “If we do this right, and depending on some of the occupants, we may even be able to come out on this thing and have the building pay for itself in the coming years. It’s a win-win deal for the taxpayers.”