The Thurston County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday morning to postpone a levy measure set for the April ballot that, if passed, would increase levy funds in order to build a new courthouse complex and administrative building.
Voters were expected to choose whether or not to pass the ballot measure, which would increase regular property taxes starting in 2021, during the April 28 election this year.
The county plans on reassessing the ballot measure and when to submit it to the voters at a later date, according to a press release.
The decision was made out of caution due to the escalating spread of COVID-19 regionally. On March 16, County Auditor Mary Hall requested the county commissioners rescind the ballot measure because many volunteers at the county’s ballot processing center are at high risk, the measure to rescind the ballot measure read.
“Our vote to rescind the ballot proposition is directly in response to the current health emergency we are facing,” commission chair John Hutchings said, according to the release. “This is a non-essential election and we do not want to put our staff or the public in danger by having to submit ballots, vote in-person, or count ballots. This is the most responsible thing for our board to do and is the best thing we can do to support the health and safety of our community.”
The ballot measure to build the new courthouse would increase the county’s 2021 regular property tax levy to a total authorized rate of $1.56 per $1,000 of assessed property value. According to the language of the measure, it’s an estimated increase of $0.47 per $1,000 over the 2020 levy.
“I think this is a necessity based on the public health emergency that we face,” commissioner Tye Menser said of the move to rescind the ballot measure.
Both Hutchings and commissioner Gary Edwards said that the spread of the novel coronavirus has put many community members in a torn financial situation. The hope is that by the county postponing this vote, the public will be in a better financial situation to later make the decision.
“I believe it’s unreasonable and irresponsible for us to consider this moving forward for the public. Keep your money for your food, medical expenses, your babies and such,” Hutchings said.
The current cost to build a new facility is expected to cost about $250 million, the county’s website states. The proposed measure, which needs a simple majority to pass, would fund the construction of a new courthouse over a 25 year levy lid lift.
The measure would also allow certain seniors, disabled residents and veterans, if qualified, an exemption from the levy. The measure would also use the 2021 levy as a base for the subsequent levy limitations over its 25 year span.
Back in April 2019, county commissioners voted to move forward with a drafted proposition for the ballot measure and voted to build it at a site on Plum Street. Staff and commissioners said this would give them ample time to educate the public about what they are asking of voters.
The board reopened the measure last fall to add in the exemptions and hear more public testimony. In early February, the board approved the final verbage to be sent to the Thurston County Auditor’s Office.
The current building is roughly 40 years old and is designed to last only about 25 to 30 years, the county’s website says. A new courthouse would last upwards of 75 years.
For more information on the county’s study and measure on a new county courthouse, visit www.thurstoncountywa.gov/bocc/Pages/courthouse-civic-project.aspx.