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Public hearing will refocus attention on Thurston County courthouse levy

A judge walks out of a courtroom and runs into a line of in-custody defendants — in a hallway also used by jurors.

A probation manager works under a tarp that collects water on rainy days.

Weapons are discovered in a backpack that already passed through courthouse security.

These are anecdotes people familiar with the Thurston County courts shared with The Olympian to demonstrate their concerns about the 41-year-old courthouse complex on Lakeridge Drive Southwest.

The Board of County Commissioners agrees that something needs to be done to improve the situation, but isn’t unanimous about the current plan to build a new courthouse at the old City Hall site on Plum Street in downtown Olympia.

Voters will decide in April whether to approve a property tax levy-lid lift to pay for the plan, which now is estimated to cost $250 million. But, at least according to one survey, most residents don’t see the need.

A public hearing later this month will give voters another chance to engage in the process and speak their minds ahead of the vote.

Proponents: It’s time to take action

“The need to do something about the courthouse has been in front of us for 10 years, if not more,” County Manager Ramiro Chavez told The Olympian.

Thurston voters may remember a proposition in 2004 — 15 years ago — that would’ve allowed the county to issue $88 million in general obligation bonds to build a regional justice center where the new jail was eventually constructed in Tumwater.

If built, that center was to include 640 jail beds and four courtrooms. It would’ve also improved seven courtrooms at the current courthouse and renovated the old jail. But 61 percent of voters rejected that plan.

Officials say the current complex, made up of six buildings that house county offices and departments along with the county courts, isn’t functional, secure, or conveniently located. They say it’s not adequate to house a growing population: According to data from the Thurston Regional Planning Council, the population has grown by more than 175,000 people since 1978, when the main courthouse complex was built.

And they have data, studies, and stories to back up their concerns.

A courthouse condition study the county commissioned in 2016 rated the general condition of each building in the complex somewhere between “fair” and “poor.”

According to Assistant County Manager and Budget Director Robin Campbell, the county has spent $6.4 million in capital projects and $7.3 million in maintenance costs on the complex since 2010, including projected 2019 costs. The county estimates that extending the life of the buildings for just 10 more years would cost more than $50 million.

One visible example of wear and tear: In Building No. 3, which houses District Court, Probation Manager Raul Salazar sits beneath a tarp in the rainy months to avoid water leaking through his office ceiling.

“The court’s obligation is to provide a forum for the resolution of disputes,” Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy told The Olympian. “And when that is not safe and when we can’t provide that, we’re not doing our core function. And we know, from studies our county commission has commissioned over the years, that no amount of remodeling of our current building would address the many safety concerns ... in addition to the inadequacies of our space.”

The location of the complex, officials argue, isn’t convenient for citizens to access. The county often uses a transit score from walkscore.com to stress this point: The location gets a 43 rating out of a possible 100.

When a magnitude 6.8 earthquake rocked Olympia in 2001 and destroyed Deschutes Parkway, it eliminated one of just two routes to the complex.

Buckley said the proposed location in downtown Olympia, which the Board of County Commissioners selected after considering a 2018 feasibility study from Thomas Architecture Studios, is expected to lead to further development in that area.

“(In 2004), we didn’t have the advantage of an investment of $250 million into the county seat, which could really use that investment,” Buckley said, saying that it could spur “significant positive changes” for the city and change unfavorable views of downtown Olympia.

A political action committee supporting the county’s proposition, called Yes for Safety and Justice, is directed by local attorneys. Data from the PDC shows the committee has raised about $5,600 as of Friday.

In District Court, Administrator Jennifer Creighton said private rooms where attorneys and their clients used to meet have been repurposed as staff offices. Now, confidential conversations happen in a bustling lobby.

Trevor Zandell, a director of the Yes PAC and lawyer at Phillips Burgess, described a time when a judge directed him and the opposing party’s lawyer go to the hall and meet with their clients. Zandell said he was having a “confidential” conversation with his client, but that the opposing attorney overheard what he was saying. That attorney, he said, then filed a sworn statement about what he heard.

“I had no option there,” Zandell said. “And I did get burned.”

In the building that houses Superior Court, back hallways serve jury rooms, judges’ offices, entrances to courtrooms, and the secure elevator through which inmates enter the building — mixing many players that should be kept separate, and that in some cases the system requires them to be.

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Courtesy Thurston County

Just the other day, Superior Court Judge James Dixon walked out of a courtroom and bumped into a line of in-custody defendants. The intermingling concerns officials for many reasons, one of which is the potential for a mistrial. It also means that, if something goes awry with an inmate, problems and threats can grow quickly.

Judge Pro Tem Lori Preuss, who sits on the Yes committee, recently reached out to The Olympian about a particular incident in August in the Superior Court building she said judges found unsettling.

According to a report from the Sheriff’s Office, an inmate was disruptive during a competency hearing Aug. 26, prompting deputies to move all inmates out of the courtroom.

The inmate spat in an accompanying deputy’s face while in the elevator, the deputy took the inmate to the ground, and the inmate bit the deputy’s hand, according to the report.

The incident bears a resemblance to a more extreme incident in 2006, when an inmate allegedly pushed the emergency stop button in the elevator and struggled with the officer escorting him until he successfully took her handgun. According to a prosecutor’s statement of probable cause in the court proceedings that followed, the inmate grabbed the deputy’s head and twice “rammed it into the corner of the elevator.”

The Aug. 26 incident was one in a handful of incidents members of the Yes committee say likely wouldn’t have happened — or would’ve been less likely or less of a safety concern — at a courthouse built according to the new, more modern and consolidated plans designed for safety. Judge Murphy said those plans would include a separate pathway for in-custody defendants.

In another recent example, a woman allegedly passed through security for drug court, and it was later discovered she had scissors, brass knuckles, and knives in her backpack. The Superior Court administrator confirmed that she and the Court Security Supervisor were aware of the incident; however, The Olympian was not able to obtain a Sheriff’s Office report confirming it.

The current plan, and the levy lid lift to fund it

A proposal commissioners voted to put on Thurston County ballots next April will ask taxpayers to approve a property tax levy-lid lift to back bonds for up to 25 years.

The property tax increase could be up to 47 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, according to the county’s website.

The county’s plan is to move courts and services out of the six buildings on Lakeridge Drive — including the three-building main courthouse complex — and construct a new, consolidated complex where the Lee Creighton Justice Center stands on Plum Street Southeast.

It would also house Olympia’s municipal court, according to the county’s website.

A rendering from Thomas Architecture Studios envisions one building that houses courts and another that houses county offices, connected by a lobby. The plan also includes a parking structure.

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Courtesy Thurston County

The median home price in Thurston County was $340,000 in July, according to Northwest Multiple Listing Service data. A person with a home that price would pay about $160 per year for the courthouse, according to the county’s online estimate calculator.

The proposition requires a simple majority to pass.

Opponents: At what cost?

A survey conducted by Elway Research earlier this year that included responses from just under 1,000 county residents suggested most people don’t feel proponents’ pressing need. Most rated the current courthouse at least “satisfactory” for the feeling of safety and security, convenience, condition, ease of navigating, and availability and convenience of parking.

Just 36 percent had heard about the proposal to build a new courthouse, and 44 percent saw the need for one.

Some who oppose the levy-lid lift made their voices heard at a public hearing April 23, ahead of the board’s decision to put the proposal in front of voters.

Taking into account testimony at that hearing and written testimony, 20 people were in support of the ordinance that would put the measure on the ballot, 18 were opposed, and 12 were neutral or other, according to the Clerk of the Board.

Opponents weren’t convinced a new courthouse was needed and questioned its cost, according to The Olympian’s reporting after that public hearing.

Commissioner Gary Edwards was the only of three county commissioners to vote no on the original ordinance. The Olympian reported then that he didn’t think voters would approve the lift, that downtown isn’t the right location, and that the county was moving too fast.

As of this week, he told The Olympian he has not had a change of heart — he gave a list of objections, which included environmental concerns about the site.

Edwards would still rather see a remodel of the current facility, even considering the county-commissioned analysis of options. He mentioned concerns about potential for poor voter turnout at the April special election, and that he doesn’t feel county leaders have earned the public’s trust in these scenarios. He sited the relatively new county jail, which faces its own host of problems related to overcrowding, as an example.

”We do live in a democracy, and my vote got shut down,” Edwards said. ”Now it’s up to the voters to have their say. And I believe this thing is going to fail miserably, but we’ll see what the voters have to say.”

Since the commissioners voted to put the measure on the ballot, County Manager Chavez said the only formal opposition he’s received has been from Jon Pettit, who frequently testifies about the courthouse at commission meetings.

Pettit sent The Olympian a document summing up his opposition to the courthouse plan, and explained that a large part of his opposition is based on how the project would be funded.

The money from this levy, he said, would go to the General Fund, which also funds public services. In the case of a recession, he’s concerned those services could get cut because of the county’s obligation.

“If we do this ... and we have another recession like 2008, it could take dozens of sheriff’s patrolmen off the road because they can’t afford it,” Pettit said.

He said he’d rather see the money go into a revenue bond that keeps it separate from the General Fund.

Budget Manager Campbell confirmed with The Olympian that the revenue collected would be deposited into to the General Fund, per state law concerning property taxes.

In response to whether there’s another way to finance the project that would keep the money out of the General Fund, she said the county will be separating the money from the General Fund and reserving it for payment of those bonds.

“While we have to initially deposit it into the General Fund, we will be issuing bonds to do the project construction, and we will be transferring the money that we collect under the levy to a separate fund that is specifically for the bond payments,” Campbell said.

Another public hearing, another vote

Yes PAC director Zandell told The Olympian the group’s plan to convince people to approve the proposal involves “as much outreach as possible.” At this point, though, he said the group is in “fundraising mode.” If they get the funds, he said they plan to send mailers.

The Board of County Commissioners recently reopened the ordinance they approved in April and made some tweaks. They’ll now host another public hearing and hold another vote.

“There were some areas we needed to clarify,” County Manager Chavez told The Olympian.

For one, there’s now language in the ordinance making clear that taxpayers who qualify for senior citizen, disabled, or veteran tax exemptions might be exempt from the increased levy based on state statute.

New language also clarifies that the Board of County Commissioners would hold a public hearing before using levy proceeds for other purposes and sets a process for choosing people to serve on committees for and against the measure.

Pettit told The Olympian the public meeting in which the commissioners approved the original ordinance wasn’t held in accordance with state law — an issue Pettit said he pointed out to the county.

The meeting was held off-site and out of the county seat of Olympia, in Rochester. The county has to announce off-site meetings like this one, according to state law, at least 30 days ahead of time. That is, unless it’s a special meeting. And special meetings not in the county seat have to be of unique interest to citizens in that part of the county.

By not giving sufficient notice, Pettit said the board violated state law.

When asked if legal concerns were the reason behind reopening the ordinance and redoing the board’s vote, Chavez said “the legalities that Pettit raised were discussed in executive session” and he could not comment.

The public hearing ahead of another vote will be held at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 22 in Room 152 of Building 1 at the courthouse complex. According to a press release from the county, written and emailed comments will be accepted until 4 p.m. that day.

“For the sake of transparency, we are going to provide the public with another opportunity to respond to the proposed ordinance,” Commission Chair John Hutchings said in a press release. “This isn’t a retreat or retraction of the intent of the ordinance, this is just an opportunity to clarify and enhance the ordinance.”

Sara Gentzler joined The Olympian in June 2019. She primarily covers Thurston County government and its courts, as well as breaking news. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Creighton University.
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