Plans for the new Tillamook County Circuit Court annex have been discontinued, before construction even began.
By Ann Powers
Tillamook County Commissioners terminated the project in a two-to-one vote at a Nov. 29 workshop with Oregon State Courts. Commissioners Bill Bartlein and Tim Josi voted to stop the project, due to budget constraints, and Commission Chairman Mark Labhart voted to continue.
“We just can’t afford it,” Josi said, adding the county is about $1 million short on the project’s funding needs.
In September, the first phase of the $9.7 million project went into effect when the board approved a $260,421 contract with Portland-based DLR Group Architecture & Planning for the assessment and design of a 9,750-square-foot structure to house circuit court facilities. Construction was scheduled to begin this summer on the southwest lawn of the existing county courthouse at 201 Laurel Ave. in Tillamook.
Project costs were to be reimbursed by secured state grants and a multi-million dollar sale of 885 acres of timberland to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. Josi said the county’s net proceeds from the sale will be approximately $3.8 million
The Oregon Legislature dedicated a 50 percent match on the new court’s construction costs through the use of state bond monies. ORS 1.185 requires the county to “provide suitable and sufficient courtrooms, offices and jury rooms for the court.”
“And State Courtroom 108 is neither (suitable and sufficient),” Labhart added. “We have been working for literally years to develop options that meet the intent of the law. The state was willing to contribute close to $5 million dollars for our state court annex project. With the stoppage of this effort… our $5 million of state funding is now gone and it is very likely we will now move to the bottom of the list.”
He also noted there are currently 20 counties of the 36 counties in Oregon who wish to have the state match funding to fix their state court issues.
State Sen. Betsy Johnson helped spearhead Tillamook County’s earlier efforts to get the project to the top of the state’s list and obtain financial assistance for the new court facilities.
“I worked with Mark Labhart hard to get this on the list,” she said. “They’ve made a decision and it’s not my place to make a value judgment. The county commission made this decision with the best info they had available. I remain a servant of Tillamook County and their direction is what I try to deliver on a state level.”
Even with the timberland sale and assistance from the state, officials said the $1 million shortfall is just for starters because there will be future maintenance costs to conquer as well. Some officials said it would be better to channel the timberland transaction revenue elsewhere.
“It will be more money for the general fund,” Bartlein said of the sale proceeds. “Right now, the county just can’t sustain the circuit court project. It was a very tough decision to make.”
The timberland purchase was approved by the county commission Nov. 2 and is currently in escrow. Officials said it is on track to go through with staggered closing dates at the end of this month and in May 2017.
Josi said the sale’s net proceeds could go to the general fund to possibly:
- Buy down Tillamook County’s Unfunded Actuarial Accrued Liability for its retirement plan, which is $21,270,856;
- Give county employees a raise or bonus;
- Place any balance in reserves, and;
- Work to improve circuit court spaces within existing courthouse without a state match.
The impetus for the new annex stemmed from a 2008 study by the Oregon Judicial Department that found the Tillamook County Courthouse ranked as the fourth worst court facility statewide.
“The state requires us to provide safe and adequate court facilities,” Josi said. “The state expects us to match half of the cost but doesn’t provide us the financial ability to do so. I would argue that the state is really not a partner – they are requiring unfunded mandatory services.”
Officials said the county will look into alternatives, such as remodeling the current space, to comply with state laws and serve the needs of residents and employees.
“We have a responsibility to provide adequate and safe court facilities,” Josi noted. “We also have a responsibility to our constituents to provide the multitude of services they expect of us. We also have a responsibility to our employees to not jeopardize their jobs and salaries.”
Circuit Court Judges Jonathan R. Hill and Mari Garric Trevino were disheartened by the vote to cease construction.
“Both Judges are deeply disappointed that the county has decided not to take advantage of a $5 million state grant to build a safe and secure courthouse facility,” said Judge Hill. “Both the court and the commissioners agreed that the current courthouse is unsafe and inadequate. Those unsafe conditions still need to be addressed, even though the grant obtained with the help of Sen. Betsy Johnson and Chief Justice Thomas A. Balmer likely will go away.”