The building itself, which county staff called, “iconic,” is worth less than the land it sits upon. Too bad no one mentioned that fact four years ago when commissioners agreed to spend $1.6 million to purchase King Louie or when they agreed to spend an additional $2 million to keep it from falling to the ground.
This December, county manager Hannes Zacharias said selling the property now would net less than $1 million after knocking it down. They had no specific plans for the space when they forked over the cash. Apparently, they believed they could never have too many failing buildings gathering dust on the books.
Now, county staff has announced grand plans for King Louie. Many of the officials advocating to spend $22 million on a worthless building are the same ones who said the county couldn’t pass up a great bargain like King Louie.
I’m not sure taxpayers should be buying anything these experts are selling. Unfortunately, the county commissioners appear ready to double down on their terrible purchase.
At a Dec. 18 meeting, four of seven commissioners granted county staff permission to move forward with the King Louie scheme. For $22 million, the building would be turned into a county arts and heritage center, house the Johnson County Museum and establish a permanent advanced voting location.
County staff listed a variety of laughable reasons why the building improvements should be funded. First, the county doesn’t have an arts or cultural center.
Staff failed to mention that the county does, in fact, regularly spend money on the arts. It maintains a public arts program that commits 1 percent of new building costs to purchasing art.
Meanwhile, county staff said the museum has mold and the hallways are too narrow. Both of those problems could be easily resolved with far less than $22 million. About one-third of King Louie would be used for the museum.
Another third of the dilapidated building would be used for a theater and parks programming, all under the direction of the county parks and recreation board. All but one member of that body recommended approval of the renovations.
Jill Gellar, executive director of the Johnson County Parks and Recreation District, told county commissioners that if the county handed them a check for $22 million, they would not use it for King Louie renovations. Instead, they would use it to develop existing parks space. So, the parks board doesn’t need King Louie, but they’ll take a free building.
At this point, the county wouldn’t even require that the board pay rent for King Louie programming. Nothing free is ever really free. I can envision a time when county staff use access to King Louie as a bargaining chip.
The King Louie project isn’t a bargain. It’s an insanity the county cannot afford.
In June, Zacharias proposed a county budget that included a tax rate increase, despite an increase in revenue generated from rising property values. Most property in Johnson County, King Louie excluded, increased in value last year, adding $10.3 million in county revenue.
Members of the commission vocally opposed a change in state law that they said stripped them of valuable revenue from mortgage tax registration fees, and Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning threatened to take the county commission to court if they didn’t agree to fund his department to the tune of an extra 40 deputies.
Johnson County government isn’t swimming in cash.
The commission managed to add sheriff’s staff, though not in the way Denning requested, and maintain its existing tax rates in the 2015 budget. That required a “fair amount of magic to make those numbers work,” Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said when he wisely voted against moving forward on the King Louie proposal.
“That magic is going to be doubling down next year even without this,” he said.
Freelance columnist Danedri Herbert writes in this space once a month.