Multnomah County set to take a long look at building a new courthouse
Feb 26, 2013 (The Oregonian - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Multnomah County took an important, albeit symbolic step Tuesday in tabling the idea of renovating its aging downtown Portland courthouse in favor of exploring ways to build a new structure at a different location.
Following a slide-filled briefing, the Board of Commissioners unofficially endorsed a recommendation to let staff spend the coming year assessing how an entirely new courthouse project could come together.
In doing so, the commissioners essentially eliminated the renovation option, which has remained in the mix for decades as board after board wrestled with ways either to replace or refurbish a century-old courthouse that lacks seismic bracing and any semblance of modern mechanical and electrical systems.
"The biggest accomplishment to date is that we are moving forward," said Commissioner Judy Shiprack, who along with colleague Deborah Kafoury, has led the effort. "I'm really excited."
Shiprack's comments came after a presentation from Partnerships British Columbia, a B.C.-based company that uses public-private partnerships to finance large-scale infrastructure projects.
The board made no decisions about whether that type of arrangement might work to rebuild a new Multnomah County Courthouse, but board members listened intently to a plan based on the idea that a private company would design, build, operate and maintain a new, 300,000-square-foot structure.
Using that model, the county would continue to own the building, while making payments to the private entity for a period of time -- say, 30 years -- to cover operating costs.
A huge advantage for the county is that the model would bring private-market investors into the mix. That's especially important in this case because cash-strapped Multnomah County, already tapped out by the Sellwood Bridge rebuild project and other demands, has no money to offer up on its own.
In fact, board Chairman Jeff Cogen said that unless the state of Oregon agrees to step in as a least a full partner in the project, it will remain as dead a decade from now as it has for years past.
"There is no way for the county to either build or renovate this on our own," Cogen said. "We're broke."
Projected costs of either option top out around $200 million.
The idea of state involvement in the courthouse remains alive in Salem, where Partnerships B.C. executives made a presentation following their briefing to county commissioners.
If the Legislature were to endorse the idea and provide sufficient funds to make a real dent, the county, taking advantage of all-time-low interest rates, could use its bonding capacity to help provide its share of the total.
Since 1981, the state has agreed to take on all costs and responsibilities for running the state court system. Counties, in return, agree to provide and maintain courthouses and other court facilities.
Due to effects of various tax-limitation measures, however, counties have found themselves increasingly unable to keep up with even modest repairs and ongoing maintenance. As many as 32 of Oregon's 36 counties, according to a recent study, are in similar straits in lacking the financial ability to make needed seismic, maintenance and security upgrades to their courthouses.
An executive order signed late last year by Gov. John Kitzhaber may help some. It frees up to $1.1 billion every two years over the coming decade for "capital improvements in infrastructure."
In the meantime, county facilities officials expect to spend about $1 million over the next 12 months to determine the market feasibility of building a brand new courthouse.
"The good news is that we are out ahead of other Oregon institutions on this," Kafoury said. "But it's still a nerve-wracking time."
-- Dana Tims
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