By: Stephanie Basalyga | Daily Journal of Commerce
April 29, 2016
For years, attorneys and judges struggled to gain the ears of county officials and state legislators to alert them to the security and seismic risks inherent in outdated county courthouses across the state.
In 2013, those efforts paid off when the Oregon Legislature created programs to provide money matches for construction of new courthouses as well as for short-term improvements for existing ones.
If there was any question whether counties would actually take the issue seriously, those doubts have been laid to rest. With more requests than money available during any one biennium, a group handed the task of bringing together counties to prioritize their needs for new courthouse buildings is preparing to send its latest list of recommended projects to Oregon’s chief justice for inclusion in the state judicial department’s budget for the next biennium.
But the existence of matching grant money doesn’t mean that the conditions of crumbling county courthouses from Tillamook to Wasco are improving overnight.
For counties that came to the table hoping to walk away with money to begin construction, the experience has been a valuable lesson in the importance of performing adequate preparation and pre-planning. For other counties, it’s been a reminder that being among the state’s most populous ones is no guarantee of an automatic move to the head of the pack.
Picking and choosing
Right now, the matching grant money is a promise, not a guarantee – and there’s only so much available during each biennium. That means projects have to be prioritized, and that’s where the Association of Oregon Counties comes into the picture. At the request of legislators, the AOC agreed to organize and coordinate a group called the Court Facilities Task Force to work with counties and recommend projects to receive money through the replacement and improvement programs.
The recommendation process for both courthouse replacement and improvement projects is based on a model that has proven successful for community college projects, said Patrick Sieng, the AOC’s public safety policy manager.
Community colleges formerly approached the Legislature individually to ask for money to pay for projects. Eventually, legislators required the colleges to work together to share information about their needs, with an eye toward creating a prioritized list that could be used to determine which projects would receive state money for a given budgetary period.
The system works so well that ports also have begun using the approach, Sieng said.
The task force members, many of whom come from counties that either have asked or will ask for state money matches for courthouse projects, understand what’s at stake for officials who come to them seeking money.
“It’s extremely hard,” said Mark Labhart, a Tillamook County commissioner who served on the task force after his county received a matching grant for a new court annex. “I have a lot of friends throughout the state, but we had some very clear criteria. We looked at the list, at which are the worst (courthouses) in the state.”
Plans and strategies
In the approximately two years since the task force was formed, the prioritization approach appears to be serving its intended purpose. Task force-organized meetings, which allow counties to come together to discuss their needs, are helping officials better plan and strategize how and when they’ll submit their requests for different phases of their projects.
The task force’s short list is just a recommendation, however. The most recent list, for example, will be presented to the AOC’s Legislative Task Force in early May. Projects approved by that task force will then be forwarded to Oregon Chief Justice Thomas Balmer, who has the option to include some, all or none of the recommended projects in his 2017-19 recommended budget for the state’s judicial department. But that doesn’t assure clear sailing for any of the counties whose projects end up in the chief justice’s recommended budget.
During the 2015 legislative session, for example, Lane County’s request for $1.4 million from the matching bond program earned a slot on Balmer’s recommended budget for the 2105-17 biennium. But Lane County walked away empty-handed when the Legislature cut the project from the judicial department’s final budget. The county has since received a promise from the state for a $1.4 million matching grant to allow the design phase to start for a new courthouse.
Counties looking for state matches to help pay for new courthouses also have to worry about how they’ll raise their share of project costs. The state grant program will only cover up to 50 percent of those costs.
That’s where Tillamook County commissioners find themselves. In 2008, a study by the Oregon Judicial Department determined that the Tillamook County Courthouse was the fourth-worst facility in the state in regard to problems ranging from security issues to structural deficiencies. Rather than try to build a new courthouse, the county decided to build a court annex that will house two circuit courts as well as offices for the county district attorney and departments such as parole and probation. The state has entered an agreement with Tillamook County to provide half of the money for the estimated $14 million project, but the county has yet to figure out where it will find the remaining $7 million.
During the 2016 session, the Legislature voted to allow presiding judges of judicial districts looking to use the state’s matching money to build new courthouses permission to add a $5 surcharge to fees related to traffic and parking violations. Counties will be able to use money from the surcharge to help cover their share of project costs. Multnomah County, for example, plans to use the surcharge starting in 2017 to pay for its new courthouse, spokesman Mike Pullen said.
Tillamook County, however, has decided it won’t tap into the surcharge, Labhart said. He also doesn’t want to have to place a construction bond measure in front of Tillamook County residents.
“I don’t think voters will support it,” he said.
Even as Labhart and other county officials try to find alternative funding sources, the clock is ticking. The county is preparing to select an architect to start the design phase of the annex project, and construction is tentatively scheduled to start in 2017.
Labhart is determined to see the project through to completion.
“We made the commitment,” he said. “We’re going to find the money.”