Safety, health issues prompt calls to replace aging county courthouse

  • Sun Jan 8th, 2012 9:34pm
  • News

By Noah Haglund Herald Writer

EVERETT — The building’s patched up and its outmoded 1960s appearance may not befit professionals who wear crisp uniforms and badges for a living.

But that wasn’t what bothered Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick last week as he walked through the fourth-floor offices that house his administrative staff. It was the worries his employees shared about air quality, about asbestos building materials, and about what to do in an earthquake.

There’s renewed talk in Snohomish County about replacing the county’s aging courthouse, which serves as the workplace for judges, attorneys and clerks, deputies and others. The sheriff knows it’s going to be a tough sell, despite a compelling argument to be made.

“We do our best with what we have, but I think it’s time,” Lovick said.

This year’s county budget calls on the presiding Superior Court judge and staff from County Executive Aaron Reardon’s office to convene a study group to explore replacing the 1967 wing of the courthouse complex.

Their recommendations are due by July 1.

County Councilman John Koster initiated the idea to start taking another close look. There is no money or definite timetable attached.

“I’m not into building buildings for the sake of building buildings,” Koster said. “That’s sort of a long-term plan. I’m not saying we’re going to do something in the next year or two, or even the next three or four.”

In 2008, an ambitious plan to remake the court complex divided the County Council and ultimately fizzled out. County Executive Aaron Reardon, at the time, deemed the $163 million plan too costly and vetoed it. That prevented a tax-levy proposal from going to voters.

The plan called for a 10-story building on the southeast corner of Wall Street and Wetmore Avenue. The county’s historic 1910 Mission Building, which adjoins the court building, would have remained. The proposal included a new parking garage.

A new plan may wind up looking completely different. It might even cost less, partly due to lower financing and building costs. Staff reductions and new technology might lessen space needs as well.

The previous courthouse plan based the size of the building partly on assumptions of increased staffing over time. Instead, since 2009 most county departments have shrunk to cope with declining budgets. The earlier plan also included space for Everett’s Municipal Court. That’s no longer a consideration now that the city is building its own new court building across the street on Wetmore Avenue.

While the county’s need to upsize its court building may have diminished somewhat, the existing structure still presents health, safety and maintenance issues. Those aren’t going away without a new building or substantial renovations.

“How much retrofitting do you put into a building year after year after year?” Koster said.

Superior Court Judge Larry McKeeman, who helped lead the previous study, said the current building puts people in physical danger. Criminal defendants, judges, jurors, witnesses and members of the public walk the same corridors.

“Everybody’s mixed together and there’s no real way to keep them separate in the current structure,” McKeeman said.

Another problem is complying with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. Few of the courthouse bathrooms can accommodate people who use wheelchairs. Jury boxes are reached using steps.

“We’ve had complaints from people and they’re very legitimate complaints,” McKeeman said.

Bob Terwilliger, administrator for Snohomish County Superior Court and Juvenile Court, said the outdated digs hinder the use of wireless Internet access, video conferencing and high-tech courtroom displays.

“Technology is going to be our answer, and this building is maxed out,” Terwilliger said. “You build a new building and it’s all there.”

Back on the fourth floor of the building last week, Lovick walked into an office that houses his finance staff. A worker pointed to a portable air filter that they clean daily.

“It’s stagnant air, it’s either freezing or roasting,” accounting tech Kim Woodward said.

Administrative assistant Mary Halberg blamed the building’s poor ventilation for spreading colds.

“If anybody sneezes,” she said, “we order them out of the building.”

The building could present bigger risks as well. In the 2008 study, a consultant reported that pieces of the building’s concrete facade covering several floors are at risk at falling off during an earthquake.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465,