Thurston County's Strained Election Division Can Expand if Complex Is Purchased

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Thurston County officials are considering purchasing three buildings to address pressing space needs in the Auditor's Office elections division.

The county may budget about $6 million to purchase the Mottman Complex, located at the intersection of Ferguson Street Southwest and 29th Avenue in Tumwater, according to a draft of budget amendments.

The Auditor's office currently leases space at the complex to run elections. Auditor Mary Hall said purchasing the complex would allow her to meet urgent space needs and secure the facility ahead of the next presidential election cycle.

In a 2-1 vote on Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners approved including the proposed purchase in a June 22 public hearing on an amendment to the Capital Improvement Program of the county's Comprehensive Plan.

Commissioners Tye Menser and Carolina Mejia voted to move this proposal forward to the public hearing. They did so despite the planning commission voting 6-1 to recommend the board delay the Mottman project until a follow-up work session.

"I don't know why the (planning commission) brushed it off, but I know the board understands the predicament we are in," Hall said. "To not do it is putting the continuity of our elections operations at risk."

Mejia said she was surprised and confused about why the planning commission, a volunteer citizen advisory group, would discuss the Mottman project at all. She said the board has evaluated the topic several times since January and already has approved the plan to pursue the purchase.

"I believe the planning commission has not had the time to review this as much as we had," Mejia said. "For us to keep delaying this just throws away everything that we've done so far."

The item to add these amendments to the public hearing includes a $7 million proposal to lease and improve the 90,000 square foot Atrium building on Pacific Avenue. Commissioner Gary Edwards unsuccessfully motioned to remove the Atrium project from the amendment.

Edwards said he wants to help Hall meet her space needs, but he is opposed to the Atrium proposal. He has previously called the Atrium proposal "premature" because COVID-19 uncertainty has upended how county employees use office space for the foreseeable future.

In their June 3 recommendation, the planning commission advised the board to not add the Atrium project to the Capital Improvement Program. The commission cited concerns about the cost of the lease and tenant improvements as well as the need for such space after the pandemic, according to their recommendation letter.

The board's action on Tuesday does not commit them to purchasing the Mottman Complex or leasing the Atrium, Menser said. Rather, the proposals are merely advancing to a public hearing, after which the board will make a final decision.

Why does the Auditor need the Mottman Complex now?

The Auditor's Office has leased space at the Mottman Complex since 2005 when the county had about 64,000 fewer registered voters, Hall told the commissioners.

She said the facility has become crowded over the years and the COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified the problems.

"We could only have half the people working there at a time (due to COVID-19), but even when we did have 100% of the people working at a time, there was not a single extra chair in that building during a presidential election," Hall said.

Consequently, bottlenecks have emerged at the processing center and there is no room for observers, she said.

However, the need to secure the complex gained new urgency with the death of the landlord. Hall told The Olympian she had an amazing working relationship with the landlord who allowed them to invest in numerous tenant improvements.

"Unfortunately, he died in the last year, which made me very nervous," Hall said. "A (new) landlord can come in and either not allow you to expand, which we definitely need to do ... or they could reopen your lease, raise the rent. There are a lot of ways to force people out."

She said the landlord's estate offered the county right of first refusal with a July 2 deadline, meaning the property could be offered to other buyers after that date.

"If we miss this July 2 closing date, who knows what would happen?" Hall said. "We have a locked-in price, we put down earnest money, there's a need and it's going to serve multiple purposes by getting other departments out of leased space."

Hall said the plan is to move the Facilities and Records departments to the Mottman Complex. They could also move voter services to the complex, freeing up space to grow the licensing and recording department at the main campus, she said.

The county's lease at the Mottman Complex extends until Dec. 31, 2024, which is coincidentally the end of the next presidential election year, Hall said.

Although the election takes place in November, Hall said recounts, post-election work and the sheer volume of equipment would prevent them from leaving by the end of that year.

"It literally would not be possible for us to be out of that building on December 31," Hall said. "If there was a recount, it's all hands-on deck. ... It's just a risk. I'm just not willing to go there."

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