EVERETT — Snohomish County leaders on Wednesday agreed to look into overhauling the county’s almost universally unloved courthouse, though judges and some others aren’t convinced that the nearly 50-year-old structure is worth the effort.
The County Council voted 3-2 to explore more detailed renovation plans. In doing so, they stepped in line with County Executive Dave Somers’ recommendation to abandon a new construction project that would have cost more than twice as much. Patching up the charmless downtown edifice, they said, is the only option, given the county’s strained budget.
“This is a good step toward producing a safe, secure and fiscally responsible building,” Councilman Hans Dunshee said.
Under the plan, the county would spend up to $63 million to fix up the concrete-paneled justice building on Wall Street. That compares to the $162 million the county until last year had expected to spend on a new eight-story building across the street and a block east. Concerns about the county’s finances and providing parking in downtown Everett sunk those plans last summer as crews were preparing to break ground.
The renovation budget is what remains from the $75 million in bonds the county sold for courthouse construction minus the approximately $12.4 million spent so far on property acquisition, architectural plans and legal fees for a new building.
Judges have expressed frustration over the sudden shifts in plans. Serious discussions about the courthouse have been ongoing for about a decade.
Superior Court Judge Michael Downes said his trust has been badly shaken by the executive and council decisions.
“You should know the court questions the wisdom of spending this kind of money to remodel a building that will still need to be replaced and still presents significant safety hazards on a daily basis,” Downes said.
The renovation would appear to do little to remedy one of the court’s biggest concerns: the inability, given the court building’s layout, to separate in-custody defendants from court staff and people attending hearings.
Somers in May made his recommendation to remodel the old building. He has said his decision was based mostly on financial concerns, which ruled out even a more modest new structure. Current projections suggest a shortfall of $6 million in next year’s operating budget.
“Our budget situation made it clear that even the lower-cost new courthouse project was going to cause us very serious financial problems and was going to result in significant cuts throughout the county, even deeper than the ones we’re looking at currently,” he said.
Councilmembers Brian Sullivan and Stephanie Wright voted against the remodeling proposal Wednesday. Sullivan said he was disappointed that Somers made his recommendation independently of a stakeholders committee that was supposed to provide direction on what to do about the courthouse.
“Frankly, it doesn’t meet the standard so it seems premature to move forward,” he said.
Sullivan, like Downes, also questioned whether the old building is worth the investment.
A top priority for the renovation is reinforcing the 1967 justice building to make it better able to withstand earthquakes, Deputy County Executive Marcia Isenberg said. Other goals include replacing obsolete elevators that break down regularly and providing bathrooms that physically disabled patrons can use on each of the building’s five floors. As is, the courthouse’s only wheelchair-accessible bathrooms are on the fifth floor of the main courthouse and in the adjacent Mission Building.
Asbestos building materials would remain in place except where exposed during the renovation process, Isenberg said.
Various plans to renovate or replace the courthouse have been floated since 2008. That year, a proposal would have put the question to taxpayers, but was vetoed by then-County Executive Aaron Reardon.
In 2012, council members committed to remodeling the building. Early the following year, however, they decided instead to look at building a new structure after being told — incorrectly — that it wouldn’t cost much more than a remodel, which wouldn’t have fixed many of the old building’s problems anyway.
After John Lovick took over as executive in mid-2013, his staff determined that the earlier cost estimates for a new building were too low. A majority of the council then chose the most expensive option on the table, an eight-story building built mostly on the site of a county parking lot on Wall Street between Rockefeller and Oakes avenues.
Somers beat Lovick for the executive’s job last fall and committed to reviewing the courthouse project, which by that point had been put on hold.
The county will continue to collect about $5.5 million per year in property taxes that were raised for the stated purpose of improving the courthouse.
County officials intend to continue working with Atlanta-based architecture firm Heery International, which has experience on courthouses and other government buildings. Architects expect to have more detailed renovation plans ready by November. The council must approve those plans before work begins.
Even without a full-blown renovation, the county still would need to fix the roof and replace windows, along with other regular maintenance.
There are no plans for what to do with $3.6 million worth of private property the county acquired through condemnation for the new courthouse project. Those properties used to house three law offices, a bail bonds business, a legal messenger service and a small parking lot.