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Jackson County Wants $136M In Coronavirus Relief Funds For Downtown Courthouse Renovation

081721_cm_Courthouse
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
White piping was rolled down the Jackson County Courthouse this spring as a temporary fix to the building's air conditioning problems.

Some legislators are pushing back, saying the millions in federal funds should help people with rent, hunger assistance and other problems brought on by the pandemic. A leader of a tenants' rights group called the move “out-of-touch.”

Jackson County executives want to use $136 million in federal pandemic-relief funds for a massive rehabilitation of the dilapidated county courthouse.

County Manager Troy Schulte told legislators Monday that the first phase of a $255.4 million renovation to the downtown Kansas City building could be financed through funds the county received from the American Rescue Plan. Passed in March, the plan was one of the first Biden administration programs designed to immediately relieve families and workers affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

Schulte told the Legislature’s Public Works Committee that while the county would need to “show a relationship to COVID,” as the law requires, they could justify that by saying it would benefit the crowded courthouse by enabling workers to be more socially distant.

“One of the things that we’ve got is a lot of people in a relatively small space,” Schulte said. “So we can make an argument that that would allow us to spread our folks out a little bit more, make it easier for people to maneuver around the building, making it safer for pandemic response.”

Legislators and advocates for the homeless questioned the county’s priorities during a time when many small businesses and nonprofits are still suffering because of the pandemic and county residents are struggling to find affordable housing.

“Are we using the money to the best of our ability when a lot of Jackson County has not come back?” asked Jalen Anderson, a legislator from Blue Springs.

“We should use this to make people’s lives better and government more accessible to them,” Anderson said. “In my heart of hearts, I don’t think (the courthouse renovation) is helping people get back on their feet.”

Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants, an affordable housing group, said she was disappointed that the county’s executives would want to spend the money for a building rehab when “there is so much deep suffering” among residents.

County executives are “out-of-touch,” Raghuveer said, and should use the funds to compensate the 120 families that will be displaced to make way for the new site of the Jackson County jail.

“The county’s priorities are misaligned with the people. They’re spending money on a jail that will displace 120 households. They’re rehabilitating a building during a time when residents of the county can’t eat and many are being forced out of their homes by the county circuit court,” she said.

“That to me feels like an abdication of responsibility.”

Schulte floated the plan after legislators were shown a proposal by a private firm, SFS Architecture, for an eight-year overhaul of the 90-year-old, 15-story Art Deco courthouse. The building was designed by a prominent Kansas City firm, Wight and Wight.

The $136 million in federal funds would be used for the most critical issues, which are mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection, Schulte said. Those were found to be in “poor condition” by a recent audit, and need immediate attention, said Dana Gould, project manager with SRS Architecture.

Other phases of the plan include fixing structural systems, relocating departments that interface with the public to the building's lower levels, improved security for staff and judges, and updating the building to meet ADA requirements. If the entire plan is approved, construction could start in 2022 and run through 2029.

Schulte said the federal funds would also be best used for the first phase of the plan because federal law requires that it be spent by 2024.

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