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 Chavez 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.”