The front facade of the Snohomish County Courthouse building in Everett, photographed Dec. 2015.

Somers: A new courthouse is too expensive; renovate instead

EVERETT — Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers on Friday said there is no reason to build a new county courthouse to address safety and security concerns.

Somers now recommends renovating the existing 1967 building instead of paying for a new structure.

His staff believes that overhauling the old courthouse would cost less than half the $162 million the county had been planning to spend on a new eight-story justice center, until abandoning the project last summer.

Weighing on Somers’ decision were concerns about county finances in 2017 and beyond. The county simply can’t afford to build and operate the new courthouse that it had been pursuing for much of the past two years, Somers said in a statement.

“We want to make sure we are good stewards of public funds and also ensure our courthouse is more functional and safer,” he said.

Somers, who was on a business trip to China, said he chose to prioritize public service over a new building.

“Not one member of the public was breaking down our doors to build an expensive new structure for our law and justice system,” he said. “Moving forward on a renovation will allow us to focus on other areas important to Snohomish County, in particular the heroin epidemic, economic development, and the county’s financial challenges.”

Somers’ recommendation on the courthouse was reached independently of the proposed 0.2 percent sales-tax increase to support the criminal justice system, which voters will decide on Aug. 2.

It will be up to the County Council to decide what happens next on the courthouse issue.

Somers convened a courthouse committee early this year. The process was outlined as part of the 2016 budget.

Deputy Executive Marcia Isenberg has been leading the effort, which brought together representatives from the courts, the County Council and the city of Everett. The group had been looking at the appropriate courthouse size, location and budget.

Early on, it became apparent that it would be too expensive to build a justice building across the street on property that was acquired by the county through condemnation, Isenberg said.

That meant any new project would have to take shape at or near the current courthouse.

“We kept narrowing it down, largely based on the cost,” she said.

To help facilitate the work, Somers’ office hired on a temporary contract Dave Gossett, who had helped start discussions about revamping the courthouse while serving as a county councilman. Gossett left the council at the end of 2013 because of term limits.

The existing six-story, 116,000-square-foot courthouse stands near the corner of Wall Street and Wetmore Avenue. Major problems include difficulties separating in-custody defendants from others at the courthouse, including crime victims and witnesses, the general public and court staff. Visitors with disabilities face a lack of accessible bathrooms. The building’s elevators are obsolete, break down regularly, and are expensive to fix. Experts have warned that the building’s multistory concrete facades are at risk of falling off during an earthquake.

The remodel option brings the county full circle, to a concept considered and later discarded three years ago.

In late 2012, Somers, then a councilman, voted against a $75 million plan to remodel the old courthouse, reasoning that it wasn’t the best long-term solution. He likened it to “putting a rebuilt engine in an old car.”

A few months later, Somers and other council members decided to pursue a new building, believing that could be accomplished for slightly more money than the remodel.

After John Lovick was appointed county executive in mid-2013, his administration determined that the new justice building would cost substantially more and ideally would be located across the street from the existing county campus. That’s when the council settled on the $162 million plan.

County leaders Lovick issued a press release Sept. 1 announcing he no longer supported building a new downtown courthouse. He blamed Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and the Everett City Council for failing to work with the county to solve parking concerns. were preparing to break ground last summer when the project imploded over budget concerns at the county and disagreements with Everett city officials over parking.

Council Chairman Terry Ryan was never a fan of the courthouse plans approved before he joined the council in 2014. Ryan had hoped for a new, but smaller project. As he sat through the courthouse committee meetings this year, he grew increasingly convinced that remodeling the old building would be the only option that wouldn’t break the budget.

“The county’s finances are in such a precarious position, this may be all we can do,” Ryan said. “We just don’t have extra money. We need to provide a certain level of services.”

Presiding Superior Court Judge Linda Krese remains skeptical that the most pressing safety and security needs at the courthouse can be addressed through renovation.

“Obviously the judges are disappointed because that idea has been studied in the past and we have been told that it wouldn’t make financial sense,” Krese said.

Whatever decision the council makes, the judge said she’s prepared to work with other county leaders to achieve the best outcome for the public and people who use the courthouse every day.

As it eyes a remodel, the county is sticking with architect Heery International, an Altanta-based firm with experience designing courthouses.

“They are very aware of the condition of that building and what would be needed,” Isenberg said.

The county has been collecting about $5.5 million per year in property taxes meant to pay for a new courthouse.

Left undecided is what to do with a half-dozen properties the county acquired to accommodate the footprint of the now-abandoned courthouse proposed for the north side of Wall Street. Though much of that area is a county-owned parking lot, the county formally declared a public necessity to acquire adjacent parcels under threat of condemnation.

The county wound up owning three law offices, a bail bonds business, a legal messenger service and a small private parking lot for roughly $3.6 million altogether.

Attorney Royce Ferguson, who owned one of the condemned law offices, last fall filed a damage claim against the county, a necessary step before suing a government entity in Washington. Ferguson has since dropped part of the claim seeking personal compensation. He still might pursue a class-action suit to refund any property taxes that were supposed to pay for courthouse construction if the money gets used for other purposes.

County leaders on Friday said they expect to resolve any parking concerns with the city of Everett before embarking on the courthouse renovation.

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

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