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Council’s courthouse site choice will decide tax increase

The County Council must choose between sites for a new courthouse that are about $40 million apart.

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By Noah Haglund
Herald Writer
EVERETT -- Snohomish County Council members hope to decide today where to build a future courthouse, with big implications for next year's budget.
The council has been weighing two future courthouse locations on the county's downtown Everett campus. There's the plaza next to the existing 1960s-vintage county courthouse, where estimates for a new building start at $110 million. The other option, a parking lot across from Comcast Arena, brings an estimated base price of $150 million. The spots are on opposite sides of Wall Street, about a block apart.
"The goal is to pick a site first to be able to know what we will need to finance," Council Chairwoman Stephanie Wright said in an email on Friday.
Wright and her colleagues have scheduled a public discussion about the courthouse at 9 a.m. Monday. That should set the tone for the 2014 budget hearing, which is set to follow at 10:30 a.m. Monday in council chambers.
Problems with the old courthouse include poor ventilation, obsolete elevators, asbestos and a concrete facade at risk of crashing down in an earthquake. Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is the inability to separate the public from shackled inmates and court staff.
County leaders have stressed the importance of quality in a new building, which could be in use for 50 to 75 years.
"I know it's a hard decision," Deputy Executive Mark Ericks said. "It would be a hard decision for anyone to make. But it's not optional, it's not a luxury item."
Housing the criminal justice system won't come cheap, either.
The cost building a new courthouse would dwarf that of the county's eight-story, $41 million administration building completed in 2005 and later named in honor of former County Executive Bob Drewel. That building project was part of a $175 million makeover for the county's downtown Everett campus. It also included a new jail and an underground parking garage.
Until midway through this year, county leaders expected the budget for the new courthouse to be somewhere around $75 million. They sold bonds for that amount this spring, then put the project on pause after County Executive John Lovick took office in June.
Lovick's staff, led by Ericks, soon determined that a $75 million building wouldn't meet the county's needs, even in the short term. It would have been filled to capacity the day it opened, without room for county deputy prosecutors and other county staff who use the courthouse daily. Also, earlier designs hadn't taken certain security features into account, including measures to limit the chance of an Oklahoma City-style truck bomb attack.
To make up for the amount above $75 million, the county is likely to use a combination of increased property taxes and other revenue, such as excise taxes on property sales. There also is the possibility of redirecting taxes now going toward debt that's almost paid off.
For every 1 percent increase in the general levy, the county would get an additional $750,000 per year for courthouse debt.
That hypothetical 1 percent increase would cost the owner of a house assessed at the county average of $223,000 an estimated $2.30 extra each year. A 3 percent increase in the general levy would cost that homeowner extra $6.89 a year. The maximum general levy increase the council can consider for 2014 -- 7 percent -- would add $16.08 to the same homeowner's tax bill.
The amount of the potential increase is linked to the type of building the council chooses.
The lowest-cost option on the table, the one for $110 million, is a seven-story building at the plaza on the southeast corner of Wall Street and Wetmore Avenue. That's right next to the current courthouse. That plan would provide no room for county deputy prosecuting attorneys or sheriff's office personnel. It would have to be built in at least two phases and would require demolishing the 1960s-era courthouse. To bolster security at that site, the county would either need to armor the exterior of the building or convince Everett city planners to let them re-route Wall Street farther away, resulting in the loss of on-street parking.
On the plus side, the plaza site would connect easily to the county's underground parking garage and a prisoner-transport tunnel to the jail.
For an extra $10 million, the county could add two more floors at the plaza site. The resulting nine-story building would have many of the same pros and cons, but would make room for county deputy prosecutors and sheriff's staff.
The $150 million option would plunk a similar nine-story building on the site of a county-owned parking lot at Oakes Avenue and Wall Street.
Earlier this fall, council members had discarded that option as too expensive. To make room there, the county also would have to buy out some private property owners on the block.
The resulting building, however, would likely have advantages in terms of security, aesthetics and accessibility.
Drawbacks at the parking lot include losing direct access to the county's underground parking garage and the prisoner-transport tunnel to the jail. Instead, deputies would transport in-custody defendants above ground to a sally port.
"You lose the tunnel, but that's not a loss as far as we're concerned," Ericks said.
Perhaps more intriguing to some in county government is the possibility, post construction, of leasing out the old courthouse. Other uses might include higher education or workforce training.
"We've kicked around some ideas of what you would do with that building if it's not going to be demolished immediately," Ericks said. "You have big courtrooms. They make good lecture halls."
Along with the future courthouse location, the council needs to determine which security, safety and energy-efficiency features to include in the building design.
Higher seismic standards or blast-proofing the building could add several million dollars each to the project. So could elements to conserve water and energy, though they could lead to long-term savings.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465,

Discussion on courthouse
When: 9 a.m. Monday
Where: County Council Chambers, Robert Drewel Building, eighth floor, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett
County 2014 budget hearing
When: 10:30 a.m. Monday
Where: Council chambers
Story tags » EverettSnohomish County governmentTaxes

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