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Construction funds might not become available until 2021

Clackamas County commissioners took a first step last week toward a long-planned new courthouse, even though it will not become a reality for several more years.COURTESY GRAPHIC - Clackamas County

On Feb. 16, the board approved a request for a $1.25 million state grant, matched by the county, to start planning on the site on the county's Red Soils campus in Oregon City.

The total project is estimated at $154 million, to be split evenly between the state and county. The site is just west of the Public Services Building (2001) and Development Services Building (2007), and is close to the sheriff's office and jail.

The request was included on the board's consent agenda — and was not subject to discussion — although several county and court officials met with commissioners Feb. 14 to review it in more detail.

But Jim Bernard, days after his Nov. 8 election to a four-year term as board chairman, identified the project as a priority for county government.

The new building would replace an 80-year-old courthouse downtown that is separated from the Willamette River only by McLoughlin Boulevard.

"We have a building that is seismically unsafe and is inadequate for our needs," said Robert Herndon, the presiding judge of Clackamas County Circuit Court.

An assessment attached to the grant request says that the current courthouse and a nearby building are 16,000 square feet short of meeting program requirements. The downtown site also lacks parking and adequate access for people with disabilities.

The assessment also says that a severe earthquake is likely to weaken the ground on which the courthouse sits — and the building could collapse into the river.

The requested grant for planning would come from a state fund created to help counties replace and rebuild courthouses.

The state took over operation of trial courts in Oregon's 36 counties in 1983, but counties remain responsible for providing the buildings and security.

The Legislature created a special fund in 2013 to help counties with courthouse capital needs, subject to matches from the counties.

Multnomah County started work last fall with state aid on a 17-story, 44-courtroom replacement for its existing courthouse in downtown Portland. That building, estimated at more than $200 million total, is scheduled for completion in 2020.

The proposed Clackamas County building would be five stories plus a basement for secured parking and prisoner transfers. It would house 16 courtrooms and 20 chambers for judges.

The building also would house offices for the state Department of Human Services and the Clackamas County district attorney; the county would have to pay for space for the latter.

The inclusion of a DHS office would qualify the building for a state share of the courthouse.

Under the request prepared by Deputy County Administrator Laurel Butman and Finance Director Marc Gonzales, the grant request would allow planners to start work.

A request for $28.8 million in state funds for design and pre-construction would follow in the state's 2019-21 budget cycle, and $48.2 million more for construction and furnishings in 2021-23.

The county would have to match the $77 million.

The assessment said the county plans to do so through issuing its own bonds, which would be repaid from future property tax growth starting in 2018. It said the county may consider a voter-approved bond issue, at a projected rate of 5 cents per $1,000 in property value, that would raise up to $30 million for unrelated costs such as access roads.

The county recently issued bonds, at a favorable interest rate, to pay for replacement and expansion of a two-decade-old emergency radio communications system. Voters approved the $59 million bond issue last year.

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