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Surprise $1.6 million added to courthouse cost

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By Noah Haglund
Herald Writer
EVERETT -- Work on Snohomish County's new $75 million courthouse hasn't even begun and it's already generating unexpected expenses.
Some county leaders were surprised this week to learn that up to $1.6 million will be necessary for a consultant to shepherd the project through design and construction.
The county official in charge of the work explained that the apparent extra expense is part of an alternative bidding process that should save money later. It's not a sign of things getting off track, county facilities director Mark Thunberg said.
"We don't expect to spend that whole dollar amount – that's a worst-case scenario," Thunberg said. "That's if they're on the project for a full three years."
A seven-story, 160,000- square-foot courthouse is being designed to replace the county's existing justice complex in downtown Everett. It would be built on what is now a plaza to the north of the existing building. In February, county leaders decided to build a new courthouse rather than renovate the jumbled and inefficient 1960s-era courthouse.
They're trying to solve the current facility's range of safety, health and maintenance headaches, one of the most pressing being inadequate separation between in-custody defendants and the general public or court staff.
A 30-year bond is paying for the construction and demolition work.
The project timeline calls for breaking ground by April 2014 and finishing during the first half of 2016.
This week, the county selected Hoffman Construction Co. of Seattle as the general contractor and manager. The county only considered bids from companies that have built other courthouses. Hoffman's portfolio includes the city of Seattle's downtown Municipal Court building.
The $1.6 million cost that caught some County Council members by surprise owes to a complex bidding process the county is using to prevent expensive redesigns and other cost overruns.
For most construction projects, municipalities put out a call for the lowest qualified bidder.
"If you're doing a simple building, that's the way to go," said Jeff Hencz, a special projects manager for the county.
The new courthouse won't be simple to build. A major complication will be that it will be taking shape within 10 feet of the existing courthouse, which must stay up and running during construction, with all normal security precautions in place.
To minimize risks, the county has opted to follow an alternative procedure allowed by state law. It is called the General Contractor-Construction Manager process. That should allow the county to stay in close touch with Hoffman to avoid costly redesigns as the project evolves.
Under the process, a state oversight board must certify that the county is prepared to see the project through. In April, the county contracted OAC Services of Seattle for $25,000 to help with that certification, which came through the same month.
On Monday, the County Council authorized paying the same firm up to $1.6 million to help design and construct the project over the next three years.
While the county could spend the whole amount, so far about $300,000 is definite.
"The real number is $300,000," Hencz said.
County Councilman John Koster had doubts from the beginning about the project staying within budget. The new figures do not put him at ease.
"I saw that and thought, 'Here we go again,'" Koster said. "Hopefully, this isn't one stop in a long trail of these things."
County Councilman Brian Sullivan, who called the project "absolutely necessary to get our courts into the 21st century," wished the council had known the increase was coming.
"I'm not trying to be critical, but every penny counts in this project," Sullivan said.
When complete, the building will house 20 courtrooms.
"I think the process is going very well," county court clerk Sonya Kraski said. "I'm excited about the improved customer service it will allow us to provide."
A key feature will be a streamlined first-floor customer-service counter where people can pay fines, file paperwork or request special assistance. It would be a judicial equivalent of the tax and licensing service counters on the first floor of the county's newer administration wing, the 2005 Robert J. Drewel Building. As is, reaching courthouse service counters entails walking a maze of halls and elevator trips to various floors.
"A lot of thought is being put into trying to make the place more user-friendly," Snohomish County Superior Court Presiding Judge Michael Downes said. "I think sometimes people come here and get frustrated because they have to go from one place to another. ... If we can make things easier, that would be an achievement."
There won't be room for everyone who would logically be in the new courthouse. That includes the county's deputy prosecutors. Now split up among different buildings, the plan is to move all their offices to floors six, seven and eight of the Drewel building.
"We wanted to be in the courthouse and we think that's where we belong," Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said. "But apparently there isn't room for us there, so we think this is a reasonable compromise."
Space in the new building will be tight from day one. The design will anticipate an L-shaped addition that could be built later, should staff grow.
"There's a finite amount of money and everybody realizes that," Downes said. "It's being built as a replacement courthouse and not as an expansion or anything like that."
The county's historic Mission Building, which is connected to the present courthouse, would be renovated and become a stand-alone building.
The county also plans to build a new Sheriff's Office south precinct at the Cathcart property, south of Snohomish. That project is being handled separately.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465;

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