County Council approves tax hike for new courthouse

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council decided Monday to build a new nine-story courthouse on a county-owned parking lot across the street from Comcast Arena.

To pay for the estimated $162 million project, the council approved a tax increase that would cost the owner of a typical home about $20 more next year in property taxes. That’s based on an average countywide assessed home value of $223,000.

The actions capped off the process for drafting a 2014 county budget. Executive John Lovick has 10 working days to sign or veto the spending plan after it is turned over to him, later this week.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we need a new courthouse, but this was a very challenging decision,” Council Chairwoman Stephanie Wright said in a written statement. “We’re committed to spending our taxpayers’ money wisely to build a facility that will serve the public effectively for the next 75 years.”

The property-tax motions passed on a 4-1 vote, with Republican Councilman John Koster opposed.

The council supported the more expensive parking lot site for the courthouse by a 3-2 vote. Democratic Councilman Dave Gossett sided with Koster on the losing end of that vote, but said he would support paying for the building that the other members approved.

“The decision is made,” Gossett said. “We need to build a courthouse and we need to pay for it.”

The overall operating budget for 2014 will be about $228.5 million, about 7 percent more than the $213 million allotted for 2013.

The budget also includes 1 percent increases in the levies that pay for road projects in unincorporated areas and the Conservation Futures Program for preserving parks and natural areas.

Koster has never disputed the need for a new courthouse, but had hoped to pursue the least-expensive option on the table.

“It’s always amazing to me to see how these projects always seem to grow and grow and grow over time,” he said.

Koster also disagreed with authorizing the debt without putting the issue to voters. In his mind, it would have been better to put a bond proposal on the ballot, as the council attempted to do in 2008 before the proposal was vetoed by then-Executive Aaron Reardon.

The new courthouse would be built on the parking lot at the corner of Oakes Avenue and Wall Street.

It will have room for Superior and District courts, the Clerk’s Office, the Office of Public Defense and the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

“The courthouse is the face of county government — it’s where people come for adoptions and marriage licenses and court proceedings,” Lovick said in a statement. “A new building gives us the chance to put our best face forward to serve our county residents.”

The council also considered building on the plaza next to the existing courthouse. That option would have cost less, with a base price of $110 million for seven stories or $120 million for nine stories.

The path they took will carry a base price of $150 million. Another $12 million will pay for energy-efficiency features, demolition costs for the old building and relocating some offices into another county administration building. The extra amount also is earmarked for earthquake-proofing the building beyond what’s required for a normal office building, if it can fit within budget. Also depending on budget, the county hopes to design security features to armor the future courthouse from truck bombs and other threats. That includes bullet-proof windows on some floors.

“It’s important to do the right project,” said Councilman Dave Somers, who recalled his grandmother reminding him about being “penny wise and pound foolish.”

Before construction begins, the county will have to buy out or use eminent domain against private property owners on part of the block, including law offices and a bail bonds business.

The county also expects to re-configure a park on the corner of Wall Street and Rockefeller, said Rebecca Hover, Lovick’s spokeswoman. Built in 1999, the park was named in honor of child homicide victim Matthew Parsons, who was 12 when his father beat him into a coma. Matthew died several years later.

If the courthouse construction timeline holds, the county hopes to spend next year acquiring property and taking steps to prepare the site, such as moving utilities. The bulk of the construction would take place in 2015 and 2016. Staff would be able to move in sometime in 2017.

It’s not known whether the county will demolish the old courthouse right away.

Any future tenant would have to contend with some of the same issues that convinced the county to build from scratch, instead of renovating the 1960s building. Problems include poor plumbing, asbestos and obsolete elevators that are expensive to maintain. The building’s concrete facades also are at risk of falling off during an earthquake.

Whatever happens to the old courthouse, the county plans to keep the adjacent Mission Building, built in 1911.

The 2014 budget increased the county’s general levy by 8.56 percent. Just last week, the council had been discussing a smaller general levy increase of up to 7 percent.

The county earlier this year took out $75 million in bonds for the courthouse before realizing that the project was likely to cost much more. The change in expectations happened after Lovick took office in June and had his staff reviewed the plans formulated under Reardon’s administration.

The property-tax increase is one of the ways county leaders plan to pay for the extra $87 million in anticipated costs that emerged from the decision-making process. They also expect to tap other revenue streams, such as excise taxes on property sales, which currently are being directed at debt that’s almost paid off.

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

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