Capitol costs

It would be nice if Kansas taxpayers could feel that state officials were trying to hold down the costs of renovating the state capitol.

So what’s another $21 million added to a Kansas Statehouse renovation project that now is projected to cost $319 million?

Kansas taxpayers can afford it, right?

In what has become an annual routine, members of the state’s Capitol Preservation Committee agreed last week to move forward with a project to spend $10.3 million to replace the capitol’s copper dome and $11.3 million to replace copper sections of the roof. It makes sense to do the work now, the committee decided, because a giant construction crane already is in place for other work. On some level, that may indeed “make sense,” but only if people accept the premise that the entire $319 million renovation project makes sense for the state, especially in the current economy.

The renovation, which began in 2001, originally was estimated to cost $90 million to $120 million, but that was before legislative leaders approved a new underground parking garage and expanded basement offices in the capitol. Of course, as in any renovation project, there also were unforeseen expenses such as needed repairs to exterior stone on the building and, now, the need to replace, rather than simply repair, the capitol dome.

The project has produced impressive results, restoring the elegant interior of the building and hopefully solidifying the exterior for generations to come. It’s also true that it makes no sense to allow a leaking roof to damage the new interior work. Nonetheless, the growing price tag is troubling, as is the committee’s continued willingness to simply accept all recommendations for additional spending apparently without seriously considering alternatives.

Could some other material be used to renovate the capitol dome, while preserving its historic beauty? According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Kansas is one of nine states with copper domes atop their capitol buildings. What have other states done to preserve their domes?

If replacement is the only option, could the state pursue alternative funding sources? One committee member suggested last week that some of the copper salvaged from the dome might be made into souvenirs and sold to offset the cost. It’s not such a silly idea. Faced with a $12 million project to repair the gold dome on their state capitol earlier this year, Colorado legislators set aside $4 million from state gaming funds and charged the private Colorado Preservation Inc. with raising $8 million in private funds for the work. It’s a lot of money, but the organization launched the Share in the Care campaign, which has planned fundraising events, set up a system that allows people to donate money from their cell phones, and, yes, sold items like a commemorative dome ornament to help defray the costs. The owners of a Colorado gold mine also stepped up with an in-kind donation of 72 ounces of Colorado gold worth more than $1 million to be used in the renovation.

If the state can depend on private money to fund the arts, why not do the same for the capitol dome?

It’s easier to simply approve the issuance of bonds and expect taxpayers to foot the bill, as Kansas officials have done, but the ballooning price tag for the capitol has many taxpayers shaking their heads. Generations of Kansans to come had better appreciate the beauty of the restored capitol because they certainly still will be paying the bill.