$200M property-tax levy proposed for new juvenile-detention facility
County officials are proposing a $200 million property-tax levy to rebuild the juvenile hall, courts and other facilities.
Seattle Times staff reporter
King County Council member Bob Ferguson is proposing, with support from county Executive Dow Constantine and Superior Court judges, a $200 million property-tax levy to rebuild the county's run-down Youth Services Center, a 9.5-acre complex near Seattle University with courtrooms, jail cells, offices and a school.
Ferguson is aiming to get the measure on the August primary ballot. The nine-year levy would cost about $20 a year for the owner of a house assessed at $350,000, said county budget director Dwight Dively.
Ferguson and Presiding Judge Richard McDermott acknowledged the challenge of seeking a tax increase in a sluggish economy. But they maintain there's little choice. The need is dire, they say, and maintenance costs will only increase at the problem-plagued facility at 12th Avenue and East Alder Street, often referred to as the juvenile court and detention center.
"The reality is there's a crisis and I don't use that word lightly," Ferguson said. "I'm satisfied we've exhausted every other scenario."
County officials stressed that they're in the early stages of planning and some details could change. Their plan might also be modified, or even snubbed by the County Council, which will decide whether to put a measure on the ballot.
Ferguson, a Democrat running for state attorney general, has three co-sponsors: Democrats Larry Gossett and Joe McDermott and Republican Kathy Lambert. He expects to introduce legislation for the proposal Thursday.
Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a Republican also running for attorney general, said he is "cautiously supportive" at this juncture. "The need is pretty profound. That place was a dump eight years ago when I first came on the council," Dunn said, adding that he wants to make sure the county isn't building a "Taj Mahal."
Problems are well-documented at the facility, where about 300 people work and 1,000 people visit each day, according to judges. Over the past eight years, the county has spent $4 million planning to replace the facility. The County Council, judges and Constantine have agreed that the buildings can't be salvaged.
Plumbing, electrical and ventilation systems are old and malfunctioning. Pipes have ruptured and brown water has flowed from drinking fountains.
Areas for families to meet are crowded, which has led at times to fights between rival teens and families. A drive-by shooting occurred in the facility's parking lot in 2009.
"We definitely need a new building," Lambert said. "Because of the economy, we just kept putting it off."
Ferguson said he's focused on gaining broader support among the nine-member council because it could help the levy succeed at the ballot.
The August primary ballot would be best for a levy, Lambert said, because it could get lost on a crowded November ballot.
Voters rejected a $150 million proposal in 2010 that would have increased the sales tax to rebuild the facility and serve other public-safety needs. The council was split 5-4 on that proposal, Ferguson noted. But voters approved a $102 million Veterans and Human Services Levy last year after the council unanimously agreed to put it on the ballot.
Property tax is considered less regressive than sales tax, and has been traditionally used for county infrastructure, Ferguson added.
Voters in 1992 approved a $166 million property-tax increase for what is now the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent; in 2000 they approved a $193 million increase for a remodel of Harborview Medical Center.
"Asking voters for the funding of large capital facilities on a project-by-project basis is what the Legislature envisioned when it limited counties to revenue increases of 1 percent a year," Constantine said in a written statement.
As now envisioned by Ferguson, Constantine and the judges, the plan calls for modernizing the juvenile center and improving its urban design.
The county would move some buildings back from their current locations near street fronts and concentrate them closer to the center of the campus. County officials would then sell to developers nearly 3 acres at three corners of the property.
The idea is that developers would pay about $16 million for the land, which would help to offset construction costs and enliven the area with retail and residential projects.
County officials hope for 425 residential units and a zoning change that would allow buildings up to 85 feet tall; current zoning allows 65 feet.
The fourth corner of the youth center would be turned into an open area, with trees, accessible to the public.
The plan, Dively said, is for staged construction so juvenile and family-justice operations would not have to move off-site, which would increase costs.
The project would unfold over roughly seven years, he said. After design and permitting, construction could start on a new courthouse. Once that's built, the old one would be demolished and a new detention center would likely be built on land now partly occupied by the courthouse.
County officials stress that they've explored many alternatives. Looking for a cheaper solution last year, they solicited ideas from developers. But none was cost-free to taxpayers as the county had hoped. They concluded that it was best to rebuild at the current site, which is near public transit and other services used by children and visiting families.
"We believe this site gives the most access to the most people," said Judge McDermott.
Ferguson scoffed at the suggestion that his proposal is related to the race for attorney general. "No, I've been proposing different solutions to the challenges with these facilities for years," he said.
Dunn said Ferguson has consistently supported tax increases as a council member. "It's no surprise he's supporting another."
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org