County Council narrows courthouse options

EVERETT — Snohomish County’s new courthouse should be built at or near the site of the outdated building it’s destined to replace, the County Council decided Monday.

The council ruled out as too expensive the option of building the future courthouse on the site of a county-owned parking lot across the street from Comcast Arena.

“I don’t see how we make the dollars stretch,” Councilman Dave Gossett said during a council committee meeting.

Even with the less expensive options, the county still has to figure out how to raise an estimated $35 million to $55 million. The new estimated $110 million to $130 million pricetag is well above the $75 million in bonds the county took out for the courthouse project earlier this year.

Making up the difference could involve a combination of property tax increases and redirecting real estate excise tax money, once other debt payments are retired.

The county has discussed 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.

Councilman Dave Somers, on Monday, said he still wants more detail on how the cost estimate changed so much.

“I’d like to be able to explain the error there and why there isn’t a $75 million option,” Somers said.

County Council members said they hope to have better cost estimates from an architect and contractor before making any final decision.

The higher estimate arose this summer after Executive John Lovick took over from former Executive Aaron Reardon. Lovick had his staff review the project. Deputy Executive Mark Ericks determined the earlier building plans provided no room for growth, poor security and failed to account for essential features, such as sound-dampening carpeting for courtrooms.

The original plan called for the new building to take shape less than 10 feet away from the old courthouse, while it remained up and running.

The least expensive option, at this point, is a $110 million building similar to the one initially proposed. It would stand seven stories on the plaza at Wall Street and Wetmore Avenue, north of the existing courthouse. It’s main advantages are a lower price and location on the county campus. On the other hand, construction logistics would be tricky and the building would have no space for prosecutors, public defenders and others who need to use the courthouse daily.

Another option, of around $120 million, would be on the same site with two additional stories to provide offices for prosecutors and sheriff’s personnel.

The site itself is flawed, because it is squeezed tight by the street. That limits the size of the ground floor and creates a security problem. Those issues would be eased if the county is able to close all or part of Wall Street between Wetmore and Rockefeller avenues, to the north of the existing courthouse. That’s something the county has started discussing with Everett city planners.

The $130 million option would move the courts into leased space during the two or so years of construction. Crews would demolish the 1967 courthouse and build a nine-story justice center on the same site.

That would give the building a larger ground floor, while minimizing disruptions and safety risks during construction. It also eliminates the need for building the courthouse in two phases, as would be necessary at the plaza.

Lovick’s administration favors the temporary move, partly because the site allows them to enhance security by setting the structure back further from the street.

Janean Jolly was grateful for what’s no longer on the table: a courthouse on the county-owned lot across from Comcast Arena. Had the county chosen to build there, it would have involved an eminent domain process against several businesses on the block, including the legal practice she helps manage for her husband, attorney David Jolly. They moved into a storefront a half block from the county campus only a year ago, following an expensive remodel.

“Ultimately, our practice isn’t in jeopardy, at least for the time being,” she said.

As a taxpayer, she also appreciated the council shelving the most expensive options, estimated at $145 million or higher.

“You must carefully balance your needs list and your wish list,” she said.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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