Thurston County is moving forward with plans to build a new courthouse after Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill to help the county raise money over a longer period of time for the project.
That means a ballot measure to raise property taxes for a courthouse is likely on the horizon for county voters in 2018 or later, according to county officials. Details of a new tax proposal are still being ironed out because officials are in the early stages of planning how to pay for the project.
But county officials appear dedicated to making a new courthouse a reality, and say the measure signed by Inslee constitutes progress toward that goal.
The current courthouse complex is roughly 40 years old and county officials say it has problems ranging from leaky roofs to security concerns.
“We just need a new courthouse,” said Thurston County Commission Chairman Bud Blake.
Such a project is expected to cost between $175 million and $200 million, said Thurston County Manager Ramiro Chavez.
Constraints on property taxes allow counties only nine years to increase bond levies above a state limit on property tax collections — and voters must approve the taxes.
Thurston County carved out an exception with House Bill 1344, signed into law in May, that allows 25 years for the county to increase a bond levy for the courthouse project. The measure was sponsored by Rep. Laurie Dolan, an Olympia Democrat.
With the nine-year limit, the county would have had to raise taxes higher in a shorter amount of time, which may have handcuffed the county if leaders wanted to raise money for other priorities.
“You have no other capacity for something else you need in the future,” Blake said.
The next steps for the county include working with a county financial committee on a plan to pay for the courthouse with the 25-year bond levy now on the table. Blake said he’s hoping to make the price tag as small as possible for the public by using private partnerships to help pay for the project.
Officials also have to pick a site for the courthouse, Chavez said. Remodeling the existing one is an option, too. The site selection process is ongoing, but a location is expected be picked by the end of the summer or in the early fall, Chavez said.
One constraint: the building has to be in Olympia, which is the county seat.
And there’s always a possibility voters could turn down a tax increase for the construction bond.
In that case, Chavez said the county may have to stick with its existing courthouse. That would mean pouring in “a lot more” cash “to try and keep up with the outdated facility,” he said.
With that strategy, problems with the courthouse will persist, Chavez said.
“At some point, you need to replace it,” he said.