EVERETT — Snohomish County’s top elected official was once among the strongest advocates for building a new courthouse in downtown Everett, but he’s changed his mind.
County Executive John Lovick joined a chorus of doubters this week when he recommended the courthouse project be put on hold, possibly for years.
Moreover, Lovick said he’s no longer sure that Everett’s the best location for it.
He blamed the city’s political leaders for scuttling a project he insists his administration was prepared to deliver.
“So many times, we thought we had a deal and we didn’t,” he said. “This has been tremendously difficult for all of us.”
The executive’s change of heart follows clear signals that County Council members are ready to kill or substantially pare back the project over budget worries. For more than a year, the courthouse plans have been a source of near-constant political friction.
Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said it’s not the city’s fault the courthouse project has been troubled since its inception.
“If county leadership decides that this particular project should not go forward, that is a county decision,” the mayor said. “It is unfair and inaccurate for the county to use the city as an excuse.”
Lovick said trouble started on Christmas Eve, when the City Council imposed an emergency ordinance requiring 300 additional parking spaces not in the original courthouse plans. The new rule threatened an already strained $162 million project budget. The mayor said Lovick’s administration for months led him to believe the courthouse plans included some sort of parking garage.
Stephanson and Lovick reached a tentative parking agreement this spring for the county to pay more than $250,000 annually to rent space in a future garage, built by the city or another entity.
A week ago, the city forwarded the county an agreement on much more favorable terms.
Instead of renting garage space, the mayor said the county could comply with parking requirements by removing 105 fleet vehicles from its garage on Oakes Avenue, south of the proposed courthouse. The county also would have been required to discourage employees from parking on nearby streets.
City leaders were scheduled to discuss the proposal this week.
Lovick said he was mystified about the city’s about-face and leery of Stephanson’s offer, given that “previous assurances from the mayor that we had a deal have not been honored.”
“We said we were building a replacement courthouse,” he said. “Our contention from day one was that no additional parking was needed. That was our position then and that’s our position now.”
As part of his new recommendation, Lovick suggested the county stop collecting approximately $4 million in annual property taxes that were raised to pay for courthouse construction. The executive wants to use $75 million in bonds already sold to remodel the existing courthouse through moves such as abating asbestos, installing better elevators and making facilities more accessible to people with disabilities.
In his press release from Tuesday, Lovick claimed he previously supported a new courthouse on the plaza next to the 1967 building they want to replace. In truth, he declined to make a recommendation in late 2013. That’s when council members settled on a county-owned parking lot across the street. Council members have said Lovick’s administration tried to steer them toward that location.
Other unspent courthouse bonds could be used to pay down other debts, saving millions, Lovick said.
County Council Chairman Dave Somers said the latest proposals from the executive “don’t make any sense to me.”
That’s especially true for the part about leaving Everett.
“They’re really all over the map,” Somers said. “We’ve been told numerous times that going outside of Everett was going to be much more expensive than building across the street, for a number of reasons.”
He said he planned to ask Lovick’s staff for an explanation at the next council meeting, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Somers noted that the talk about giving back taxes comes during election season. He and Lovick are competing for the executive’s job on Nov. 3.
Somers said he, too, might support cutting taxes, but he first wants to have “a rational, reasoned decision about the courthouse and then the other things will follow.”
The county had been prepared to break ground earlier this summer on the eight-story court building on the north side of Wall Street, between Rockefeller and Oakes avenues. To make way for it, the county used eminent domain to condemn six neighboring businesses, including law offices.
One of them belonged to David Jolly, an attorney who specializes in DUI defense. The county told Jolly it was necessary to buy out his recently remodeled building. Though Jolly was paid for real estate and moving costs, last year’s settlement didn’t cover the “six figures” worth of business he’s lost since moving.
“If there is no building on that property, they didn’t take it based on public necessity,” he said. “Was it fraud? Or just negligence? Either way, we’ve been impacted for potentially no purpose.”
The attorney said it would be illogical to move the courthouse outside of Everett. Not only would it be farther from the county jail, it would force legal services businesses to uproot, leaving downtown “somewhat of a ghost town,” he said.
County Councilman Terry Ryan said he can no longer support the project that led the county to buy out Jolly and neighboring business owners.
“It’s too expensive and given the current economic climate, we cannot afford it,” Ryan said. “Ultimately, we will probably do something close to the original plan, which is to build an annex building next to the original courthouse. If I had to guess, that’s where I think we’d end up.”