Tax hike for courthouse proposed

A new $169 million justice center climbing 10 stories into the Everett skyline might be grafted onto the existing Snohomish County Courthouse in coming years.

Details of the proposal head to County Executive Aaron Reardon next week and the County Council soon after.

It remains to be seen how taxpayers might be asked to cover the costs, but a proposed tax increase to pay for the project might appear on the ballot this year.

“We’ve run out of space for the public, jurors, staff and judges,” Superior Court presiding judge Larry McKeeman said. “We are hopeful to get it on the ballot for the general election in November.”

The County Council and County Executive Aaron Reardon are still evaluating the proposed project and its financing.

Reardon’s proposed 2008 budget identified only a voter-approved tax increase to pay for the project, County Councilman Dave Gossett said.

The County Council needs to find a way to minimize any tax hike asked of voters, he said.

“We can’t go to the voters and ask them to increase their property taxes to fund the entire cost of the project,” Gossett said.

He has proposed pledging existing county tax revenue worth $62 million for the project. More funding options are expected to be discussed in coming months.

The cost of the proposal rivals and could exceed the $177.7 million campus redevelopment the county completed in 2005. The county built a new eight-story administration building, jail and underground parking garage.

The county still is paying off the debt on the campus redevelopment project using general fund tax dollars and real estate excise taxes.

The needs of the courthouse have been studied several times but took a back seat to the campus redevelopment, McKeeman said.

The latest study shows the courthouse needs nearly 300,000 square feet more space for more courtrooms, and offices for prosecutors and court clerks, among other necessities of Superior Court operations, McKeeman said.

The existing courthouse and historic Mission Building also would be renovated.

Depending on what the city of Everett requires for parking, the new justice center might also include a $23 million parking garage for 500 cars.

The courthouse was built in 1967 alongside the Mission Building. At the time, the county had four judges. Today there are 15 judges and five commissioners.

Some court staff are squeezed into office space not meant to hold people, McKeeman said.

The building has leaked and lacks sufficient security, McKeeman said.

“I think the voters will recognize that the building was built in 1967, and there’s been considerable growth in the county and the services the county provides,” McKeeman said. “Right now we don’t have a building that provides enough space or enough security.”

The proposal is a substantial investment, said Brian Parry, executive office administrator for Reardon.

“We recognize and appreciate their needs, and believe that the proposal when it’s finalized will leave voters with a tough choice about priorities for their tax dollars,” Parry said.

Everett might join in to share space in the building for its municipal court, and that might offset cost to county taxpayers, McKeeman said.

With voter approval and money, construction could begin in April 2009 at the soonest and be done by the end of 2012, justice center project manager Dick Carlson said. Carlson was Superior Court and juvenile court administrator for 11 years.

The current courthouse and the Mission Building have been patched for years to “make do,” Carlson said. The heating and electrical systems are substandard, and the elevators — when they work— are archaic.

“The systems are really failing,” Carlson said. “The building does not work for people.”

Jurors line up for security outside in the rain and then are shoehorned into a space for orientation. Judges, attorneys, prisoners and the public share the courthouse’s corridors. Last week, security had to intervene when a man accused of a sex crime made an offensive gesture at the victim’s father when they saw each other in the hall.

“For security and legal reasons, those aren’t good things to have happen,” Carlson said.

“The county for years and years has tried to fix this. It’s make do, but ultimately it’s too small and doesn’t work anymore.”

Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or jswitzer@heraldnet.com.

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