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Published: Monday, September 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Tax hike likely needed to pay for new courthouse

EVERETT -- The cost for a new Snohomish County courthouse is just starting to come into focus.
And with $75 million in bonds already sold for the project, it's too late to back out.
Now, county leaders need to pick a spot for the building. They also need to find another $35 million to $70 million to foot the bill. In other words, they're likely to raise taxes.
"That's going to be the key issue -- how do you pay for it," County Councilman Dave Gossett said. "But, until the design work is done, all of our numbers are best guesses."
A discussion about the new courthouse's location and costs is planned for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, during the councils' finance committee. The discussion was rescheduled from Monday.
The county is in this predicament because leaders budgeted the project at $75 million without thoroughly studying the community's needs.
A task force of county administrators and court officials, convened last year, determined it would cost about $65 million to remodel the county's existing 1967 courthouse.
The remodel, however, wouldn't have fixed a host of problems. The biggest: the inability in to keep criminal defendants separated from jurors, the general public and unarmed court staff. Outdated elevators, plumbing and heating systems drive up maintenance costs, while concrete façades are at risk of crashing down in an earthquake.
The County Council in February opted for a new structure, after the county facilities department said that construction could be done for about $10 million more than remodeling. A council majority approved 30-year bonds, which must be used within three years.
The original plan called for a seven-story structure with 20 courtrooms in the plaza north of the old courthouse. The county's 1911 Mission Building would have survived as office space.
A better picture of the costs emerged this summer. After John Lovick took over from Aaron Reardon as county executive, the council put the project on hold for a fresh look.
Lovick assigned the job to Deputy Executive Mark Ericks. The former U.S. Marshal for Western Washington quickly identified what he said are safety flaws in the original proposal.
"The thing I think people should demand is that we build it right the first time and that we do the best that we can with the dollars we have," Ericks said.
While council members don't relish the predicament they're in, they're grateful to have Ericks' input. The first proposal, Ericks noted, shrunk common areas and failed to include features such as noise-dampening carpet for courtrooms. The new building also would have been filled to capacity from the day it opened.
"I'm glad that we took the pause, but we really need to proceed carefully and not rush into a decision or picking an option," Councilman Dave Somers said.
An important timing issue is turnover on the council, which will have at least two new members next year because of term limits. A delay could change the construction time line of 2014 to 2016.
Somers and Councilman John Koster both opposed a tax increase to pay for courthouse upgrades, but they agree the old building is inadequate.
"I had an objection to this to begin with," Koster said. "Not to the need; we need a new law and justice center."
Koster believes the county should have made a case to voters and sought approval for using new revenue streams before moving ahead.
But it's too late for that.
"How do you back away from it now?" Koster asked. "You sold the bonds."
The deputy executive and council members are exploring ways to come up with the extra money through a 2 percent increase in the county's general fund property taxes. That would add about 38 cents a month to tax bills for a house assessed at $250,000 or 76 cents per month for a house assessed at $500,000.
Future real estate excise revenue also could be used for courthouse construction, once other debt is retired.
To get a better handle on the price, the council needs to decide where to put the courthouse. Ericks has presented five options.
The first, similar to the original $75 million proposal, would cost roughly $109 million. It would stand seven stories on the courthouse plaza at Wall Street and Wetmore Avenue.
Pros include a comparatively low price and access to the county's underground parking garage. The courthouse new could be expanded after the old courthouse building is demolished.
On the con side, there's no space for county prosecutors or sheriff's office administrators.
"To me, it's inconceivable to build a courthouse without having space for the prosecutors, and for that matter the defenders, close by," Ericks said. "They do their work in conjunction with the courts."
Another problem: Construction on the plaza would take place within 10 feet of the old courthouse while it's up and running. The planned building also would sit nearly flush with the street, making it vulnerable to a car bomb.
A second option, costing around $120 million, would be in the same plaza footprint but would add two stories and 40,000 square feet. It shares many of the same drawbacks, but does provide space for county prosecutors and sheriff's personnel.
A variant of those plans would move all courthouse operations into temporary space while the existing courthouse is knocked down and a new one built over its footprint. That option would cost about $130 million, but solves safety and disruption concerns. It also allows setting the building back from the street, enhancing security and aesthetics.
Lovick's administration favors that option, Ericks said.
Minuses include moving staff and spending millions of dollars on tenant improvements for leased space.
Another scenario, costing about $145 million, is a nine-story courthouse on the site of a county-owned parking lot at Wall Street and Oakes Avenue. The location is across the street from Comcast Arena, to the east, and the county administration buildings, to the south.
That option would allow for a bigger ground floor. It wouldn't have to be constructed in phases, as the plaza buildings would.
To build there, however, the county would have to displace some businesses on the block. Public parking spaces would disappear. It also would render useless the underground transport tunnel between court and the jail.
A fifth option -- the most expensive at roughly $155 million -- is not being considered, Ericks said. It's a variant of the parking-lot building with an extra floor.
Councilman Brian Sullivan is partial to the parking lot site, but location isn't the most important issue for him.
"The bottom line for me is that regardless of location, we have to build it right," Sullivan said. "This isn't a public building to be cheap on. It won't be a Taj Mahal. It will be similar to any other new courthouse."
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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