Replacement of the aging 1970s-era Thurston County Courthouse faces many financial obstacles. The project, once estimated to cost upward of $150 million, could place a large burden on taxpayers if financed for too short of a time.
But helpful legislation giving the county an option for financing the project over 25 years has passed in the state House of Representatives.
House Bill 1344, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Laurie Dolan of Olympia, would let the county send a property-tax levy lift to voters for financing the project over 25 years. That keeps taxpayers on the hook longer but sharply reduces costs per year. Current law places a nine-year limit on such bond proposals.
“It’s pretty hard to build something that big and finance it in nine years,” Dolan said.
Dolan sponsored the bill at the request of county authorities. It passed the full House on Monday by 74-22, and all eight South Sound lawmakers in the 22nd, 2nd, 20th and 35th legislative districts backed the bipartisan proposal.
The bill was modified in committee to reduce Dolan’s original 30-year time limit. Testifying in favor of the original bill were Thurston County Commissioner John Hutchings, who spoke for all three commissioners, and Robin Campbell, assistant county manager.
The measure goes on to the Senate where Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, sponsored a companion measure, SB 5062.
Figuring out where to place a courthouse and how to finance the project are among the big questions facing county leaders. Sites have been suggested in downtown Olympia near the Hands On Children’s Museum as well as on the former Olympia city hall site and others in West Olympia.
A central location that allows better public access by car or transit to core county offices — from the commissioners’ office to the treasurer, assessor, auditor and court offices — makes a great deal of sense.
Affordability questions and traffic concerns are legitimate. There is a question whether the county is better off owning or leasing long term.
The county has had consultants helping to sort through options.
“First of all, the county is going to have to decide if they want to put this on the ballot,” Dolan said. “Then Thurston County voters have to decide if they want to do it.’’
So far, so good. But the Senate also needs to pass this measure and the governor must sign it into law.