The Snohomish County Council voted to approve a major courthouse renovation. (Snohomish County)

The Snohomish County Council voted to approve a major courthouse renovation. (Snohomish County)

County courthouse redo gets go-ahead vote, but barely

To cut costs, the Snohomish County Council reduced public arts funding on high-dollar projects.

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council on Monday narrowly approved a $4.2 million demolition contract and plans for an extensive renovation of the courthouse.

To combat cost overruns, the council also reduced the amount of money the project is required to contribute to the county’s arts fund.

The project, which overhauls the existing courthouse and adds a five-story tower to the north side to the building, is about $4.6 million above budget. That’s about 6.5 percent more than the $72 million the council authorized last year.

During Monday’s meeting, Councilman Terry Ryan quizzed county staff, looking for assurances that there would be no more surprises. He was referring to the news from early July that construction bids were over budget.

“We’ve done a lot of exploratory work in that building and feel confident on what we are going to find,” said Eric Parks, deputy county executive. “If there are surprises we are going to make sure to involve council.”

Ryan voted with the 3-2 majority to move ahead with construction, along with Councilmen Sam Low and Nate Nehring.

Construction management consultants have said the 6.5 percent cost overrun is much better than the 20 percent to 30 percent that many Seattle-area construction projects are seeing in the current hot market. A flurry of government and private-sector projects has increased competition for labor and materials. They include new facilities for tech giants such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft, plus massive public transportation expansions and new schools.

To cut costs, the council approved a proposal from Nehring, eliminating a county requirement dedicating 1 percent of all major construction projects toward artwork. Instead of the full construction price, the 1 percent requirement would apply only to the first $10 million — of the courthouse or for any future large projects.

Nehring estimated this action could save more than $400,000 on the courthouse.

Before the changes, any project above $100,000 was required to spend 1 percent of the budget on arts.

Critics of Nehring’s ordinance said eliminating the arts contribution won’t solve the budget problem.

“The courthouse still needs a floor. It still needs lighting, stairwells and walls — why can’t an artist design them?” said Wendy Poischbeg, of Everett, during a public comment period.

Executive Dave Somers’ office has outlined strategies to pay for the extra amount, without raising taxes.

The three options were: selling county-owned property across the street, using a real estate excise tax or dipping into a savings fund intended to maintain or replace other buildings.

In a prepared statement, Somers said the project will ensure the courthouse works for the growing population.

“We have already saved $86 million with this more modest project, and we will take steps to save even more, when possible, striving to keep it within budget,” he said.

Construction fencing could go up around Wall Street and Wetmore Avenue by next week, with demolition work possible in August.

One of Monday’s no votes came from Council Chairwoman Stephanie Wright, who worries that costs could increase.

“Renovations always lead to uncertainty,” she said after the vote. “Our goal right now is to stay on top of it.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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