County close to giving up on new courthouse project

EVERETT — Frustration boiled Monday as Snohomish County leaders all but scrapped plans to build a new eight-story courthouse downtown.

The $162 million project had been on track to break ground this month. The Everett City Council threw that into doubt last week when it postponed voting on a parking agreement that’s necessary for construction to begin.

On top of that, some county officials have started sounding the alarm about the shaky state of the county’s finances.

County council members now are contemplating cheaper options. They could return to a earlier plan of tacking a new wing onto the existing courthouse — or even look at building sites outside of Everett.

“At this point, we don’t know quite where to go with the project,” county facilities director Mark Thunberg said.

During a discussion Monday, Councilman Brian Sullivan showed just how much has changed. Only two weeks earlier, Sullivan had called it “insane” to go back on the courthouse project that’s “absolutely necessary.” On Monday, he conceded, “I just don’t see how we move forward at this point.”

The turnaround drew strong words from Michael Downes, the presiding judge in Snohomish County Superior Court. Downes said his impatience has been growing for the 11 years he and other county leaders have discussed a new courthouse. All along, they’ve agreed that the new building is imperative — a conclusion supported by independent studies and first-hand experience.

“There are significant, real, honest-to-God safety issues in that building that we deal with every day,” Downes said.

County Council Chairman Dave Somers said he would be open to an alternative that would cost $90 million to $100 million. That’s less than any of the new courthouse options the county considered earlier in the process. That might leave remodeling the existing 1967 courthouse and adding a new wing as the only affordable option.

Somers voted to oppose a remodeling plan in 2012, but on Monday said financial concerns have caused him to rethink his position.

Downes said he doesn’t care where a new building goes, or exactly how big it is, as long as it addresses the courts’ needs. Sprucing up the old building won’t cut it, though.

“We will not support spending public money for a project that does not meet our needs,” Downes said.

The old building, he said, can’t be retrofitted to address myriad problems, which beyond safety include structural issues, maintenance headaches and being inaccessible for many people with disabilities.

“It cannot be done — I’m not an architect and I can tell you that,” Downes said.

Downes said he’s not ready to throw in the towel on the courthouse plans. The longer people wait, though, the more costs will rise, he warned.

Designs for the new courthouse include 21 courtrooms — the same number as in the existing building. The interior has 253,000 square feet, compared to 165,000 square feet in the existing courthouse and adjoining Mission building. The extra space would help court staff separate detainees from the public and court staff, including different elevators for transport. The new design also includes jury boxes and bathrooms that physically disabled people can access.

Staff would not grow in the new building. On the contrary, layoffs are a real possibility throughout county government, including the courts. County departments have been warned that they could face funding cuts of up to 6.2 percent in next year’s budget. The only way to trim that much is through layoffs.

“Having that big, giant building across the street with fewer employees than we have now makes no sense to me,” Councilman Ken Klein said.

The council and Executive John Lovick’s administration have yet to schedule a discussion about several issues threatening to erode millions of dollars from next year’s county budget. Among the challenges are new labor contracts and Oso mudslide costs.

The courthouse project has been upended several times already.

The County Council in 2008 approved a $163 million ballot measure to ask voters to approve taxes for remodeling the old courthouse and adding a 10-story addition. Aaron Reardon, who was then county executive, vetoed the measure.

The current plans originated while Reardon was still in office as a remodeling project estimated to cost of $75 million. The County Council in early 2013 instead opted for a new court building after Thunberg said it wouldn’t cost that much more than the remodeling plan.

Later that year, Lovick was appointed executive after Reardon resigned amid scandal. The council put the courthouse project on pause. Lovick’s administration soon determined the earlier cost assumptions were inaccurate and proposed alternatives, all at a higher cost.

The County Council in November 2013 raised property taxes to pay for the most expensive option on the table: a $162 million building on the opposite side of Wall Street, a block east of the existing courthouse. If built, that project would take up the southern two-thirds of the block that also borders Hewitt, Rockefeller and Oakes avenues. Much of the site was a county-owned parking lot. The plan required using eminent domain to buy out six businesses, including law offices.

The new courthouse project appeared to be moving ahead until December, when the Everett City Council enacted emergency parking requirements for the new building. City officials said they feared the new courthouse would displace parking for nearby businesses and next-door Xfinity Arena.

In February, as the project sat in limbo, county officials said stopping the project in its tracks would cost taxpayers $26.4 million — with nothing to show for it. Every month of delay was expected to add $200,000 to that total.

In April, Lovick and Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson’s administrations broke the impasse by announcing a tentative parking agreement.

The proposal would have obligated the county to lease up to 300 parking spaces in a future parking garage as a condition of building the new courthouse. The city would have had to build or acquire the garage within 15 years of the courthouse receiving a certificate of occupancy.

Everett council members had been expected to vote on the parking agreement last week, but instead pushed that decision off until Sept. 2.

Among other issues, city officials said they were concerned about the costs of a proposed retail and parking redevelopment the city has studied on the south side of Hewitt Avenue, on the same block where the county intended to build the courthouse.

A city consultant recently concluded that the retail and parking project would never bring in enough cash to offset the investment. Depending on interest rates used to finance the project, the city would end up subsidizing it for up to $1.4 million per year.

Chris Winters contributed to this report. Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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