A courthouse that will last

The politically unpalatable line of the year goes something like this: Taxpayers, the Superior Court needs $140 million (give or take) for new digs. And, FYI, the previous administration may have low-balled the estimate by $70 million or so.

Carry on, then.

The expedient response — punctuated by a Will Rogers quote and judge zinger — is to let them eat portables. But the facility crisis has been a long time coming, and it can’t be one-linered away.

After Aaron Reardon’s resignation in May, newly appointed Snohomish County Deputy Executive Mark Ericks inherited the unenviable job of noodling options and expense projections. As The Herald’s Noah Haglund reports, Ericks avoids finger pointing, noting that the cost discrepancy wasn’t deliberate.

Ericks is being charitable. At best, missing the mark this egregiously reflects poor internal communications during the Reardon era. It also violated the Bob Drewel axiom to never be surprised or create surprises for others.

Now, County Executive John Lovick and the county council can approach the challenge de novo and do it right. This includes evaluating whether a new building should also house related departments (the sheriff’s office, county clerk and the prosecutor’s office, for example.) Should a design-build approach trump a standard RFP process?

Location drives costs. As Haglund writes, the original option was a seven-story building just ten feet from the existing courthouse. It was to be a shrink-wrapped, bare-floored facility with “zero setback from the street,” Ericks told the council. The $75 million price was appealing enough to earn a unanimous council nod earlier this year and the issuing of councilmanic bonds (read: bonds not sent to the voters.) The plan was shoehorned into the too-good-to-be-true price, an inverse decision model.

An alternative location is the county’s parking lot on the corner of Oakes Ave. and Wall Street. The estimate is a steep $155 million for a ten-story building. The county would need to buy up adjoining property or impose eminent domain (not a popular course.) Another option is to raze the existing courthouse, a brutalist eyesore circa 1967, and construct a $130 million facility (cue those portables.)

A compounding factor is timing. The bonds expire in three years, and locking in low-interest rates and construction costs requires making a decision very soon. With two members of the county council departing, however, it’s wise to give new members a say.

Finally, as all good Snohomish County children know, Everett stole the county seat from Snohomish in 1895. If history could be avenged, the council might weigh less expensive options outside of Everett.

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