Thurston County is looking for help from the Legislature to build a new courthouse complex to replace its 39-year-old facilities.
Thurston County Manager Ramiro Chavez said Tuesday the courthouse is outdated, causing problems from leaky roofs to security issues. The county has been researching how to replace the complex since at least 2015, and, Chavez said, estimates for such a project would cost between $175 million and $200 million.
To help foot the bill, the county is asking for a change in state law to allow a longer time period to pay off construction bonds — if voters approve a property tax hike to fund the project.
So far, state lawmakers have said yes.
Led by prime sponsor state Rep. Laurie Dolan, the House passed House Bill 1344 by a 74-22 vote Monday. The bill would let Thurston County increase bond levies over a 25-year period, instead of the current nine-year limit. Dolan is a Democrat from Olympia just elected to her first legislative term.
Without the change, county taxes would have to be raised too high in a short amount of time to fund the project, Assistant Thurston County Manager Robin Campbell told a House panel in January.
“You really can’t build something that big over a nine-year period,” Dolan said Tuesday. “You need more time than that.”
The courthouse project is still in the early planning stages. The county hired a project manager late last year to help assess where a new facility might go, Chavez said. The courthouse’s current site — in west Olympia on Lakeridge Drive Southwest — is an option.
The county still would have to put a bond levy for the project to Thurston County voters. While that’s not likely in 2017, Chavez said, it could be on the ballot in 2018.
Dolan’s bill now heads to the Senate for consideration, where it may face some opposition from the GOP.
While the bill received considerable support from the GOP in the Democrat-majority House, the 22 members of the 98-member chamber who voted against it on the floor were Republican.
The Senate is controlled by a coalition of 24 Republicans and conservative Democrat Tim Sheldon of Potlatch.
State Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, who voted against the bill on the floor, said he generally doesn’t like carving out exemptions to laws for one county. He said he prefers to find solutions that are consistent statewide.
Manweller said some Republican legislators also thought Thurston County’s problem could be better addressed as part of an effort to broadly reform a state law that restricts property tax collections.
But Dolan said she’s optimistic about the bill’s chances, in part because there were many Republicans who backed her measure and because the bill isn’t expected to cost the state a significant amount of money.
Chavez said if the legislation does stall, the county will be forced back to the drawing board about how to pay for a new courthouse. He said it was too early to talk about what other alternatives might be.
“If this doesn’t materialize, we have to look at other ways,” he said.