A drawing shows a planned addition to the Snohomish County Courthouse. (Heery International)

A drawing shows a planned addition to the Snohomish County Courthouse. (Heery International)

Pricey courthouse re-do triggers debate over public art

Save taxpayers $400,000 by shrinking the project’s commitment to artwork, says one councilman.

EVERETT — A debate over the value of public art has colored an upcoming vote about a major renovation of the Snohomish County courthouse.

The County Council is preparing to decide Monday whether to move ahead with the overhaul. They’re worried about costs, after bids came in millions of dollars above the $72 million budget.

To trim expenses, Councilman Nate Nehring suggested removing a county requirement to dedicate 1 percent of all major construction projects toward artwork. Instead of the full construction price, Nehring wants the 1 percent requirement to apply only to the first $10 million — of the courthouse or for any future large projects. For the courthouse, he said, that could save more than $400,000.

“The fact is that the courthouse is $4.6 million over budget and we have yet to put a shovel in the ground,” Nehring said Wednesday, during a public hearing. “Our primary obligation is to the taxpayer. So when we have a project that is millions of dollars over budget, I think that the average taxpayer would find it absolutely unacceptable that we’re spending up to half a million dollars for art.”

That doesn’t sit well with everyone.

Among the critics is Karen Guzak, a Snohomish city councilwoman who has had a long career as a painter and public artist. Guzak said the County Council was yielding to fear over the budget rather than pursuing a greater vision for an important public building.

“The benefit of arts far exceeds its cost,” she said. “Public art graces our public and private buildings in multiple ways. Not only paintings and sculptures, but also stained-glass windows, floor patterns, decorative railings, wall murals, fountains, gateways, light fixtures. So please keep this 1 percent for the arts in the courthouse and do not reduce it to the $10 million figure.”

County leaders last year committed to a major renovation of the courthouse with a new five-story wing on the north side. The addition would include a ground-floor entrance and security screening area, as well as modern elevators and bathrooms that, unlike the current facility’s, comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The project also aims to fix shortcomings with the original 1967 structure, including those around earthquake readiness and asbestos.

The current 1 percent for the arts ordinance was adopted by the county in 2006. That amount is placed in an arts fund. The cost excludes expenses such as land purchases and equipment, so it doesn’t match the entire budget.

The Snohomish County Arts Commission recommends how to spend the fund.

Artwork at many county parks owes its existence to the fund. There’s “The Landing Zone,” a UFO sculpture at Paine Field Community Park, and “A Cosmic Balancing Act,” a tile mosaic at Lake Stevens Community Park.

Other pieces of public art are found through the county’s Robert J. Drewel building. A photo illustration of Superman in a barber’s chair, titled “The Hero’s Haircut,” graces the seventh floor lobby.

The arts fund also can be used for practical features that have an artistic component. That might include a decorative railing or bench.

Councilman Sam Low said County Executive Dave Somers’ office could increase the arts budget for the courthouse if there’s a surplus in the construction budget.

“What some call fears, I call flexibility,” Low said.

Art aside, there’s tension over the courthouse project as a whole.

The council Wednesday delayed a vote on a demolition contract for parts of the courthouse. That decision is now expected at the council’s regular 10:30 a.m. Monday meeting, as is the vote on 1 percent for the arts.

If the project is approved, construction could start in August.

But that’s not a given.

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but I have a lack of confidence in the team that’s overseeing the project,” Councilman Terry Ryan told Somers during last week’s meeting.

Ryan said the executive’s office should have known bids would come in high, given the construction market. The council only learned of the issues early this month.

“I’m committed to working with the executive’s office between now and Monday to find a path toward better communication from the executive’s office to the council, and accountability and responsibility,” Ryan said. “If we don’t reach an agreement on this, they can’t count on my vote.”

Somers said his team has handled the project appropriately and has striven to keep the council in the loop.

“There was no way of knowing what the bids would be until we got the bids,” the executive said.

Somers emphasized that the renovation should cost less than half of what the county was prepared to spend three years ago, before scrapping plans for a new eight-story courthouse building across the street.

He’s eager to get things going, regardless of the arts budget.

“To me, time is money,” Somers said. “It’s fine. We’ll work with it.”

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

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