IMAGE: Jon Sperry
Ted Wheeler’s sudden ascension from Multnomah County chairman to state treasurer leaves a long-planned East County Justice Center project on shakier ground than ever.
The man scheduled to become interim county chairman on April 1, Commissioner Jeff Cogen, says he’s very skeptical about whether the county can afford to build that long-promised center.
“We’ve cut our budget 10 years in a row,” says Cogen, running for a full four-year term as chairman this May after Wheeler accepted the treasurer’s appointment on March 9. “This project is important and it’s being brought forward again this year. My question is, how are we going to pay for it?”
And now there’s a new wrinkle. A private developer says the county’s current plan could be executed a lot more cheaply than its most recent estimate of $21 million.
Although $21 million is far less than before, the project’s hapless history rivals other unbuilt, local pie-in-the-sky capital expenditures such as a new Columbia River Crossing bridge and an Oregon Convention Center headquarters hotel. In the 1960s, Gresham lawmaker Vern Cook pushed legislation to require that a county judge be located east of 122nd Avenue to adjudicate traffic violations and misdemeanors in east county, averting journeys to downtown Portland for such cases.
The county has repeatedly formulated plans only to fall short of funding. Currently, the east county judicial facility is in a dilapidated Gresham building where lawyers meet with clients in a kitchen. Wheeler had pushed county staff to find a solution. And the county bought land at Southeast 185th Avenue and Stark Street in Gresham’s troubled Rockwood neighborhood to build an 80,000-square-foot structure with four courtrooms and space for the county sheriff and Gresham police.
In the planning phase, that plan’s budget doubled to more than $40 million. A subsequent, scaled-down plan for a building in downtown Gresham also soon evaporated. The county then hired Shiels Obletz Johnsen to take over the project. Last October, that urban development firm presented the county commission with a $21 million plan—back in Rockwood but minus everything but the courtrooms.
Eliminating the Gresham police and sheriff’s office defeated a premise of locating in Rockwood. The idea was that the East County Justice Center would provide a visible law enforcement presence in a high-crime area and that a busy building would provide lots of economic activity.
Cogen says those goals remain important, but the money set aside for the justice center from earlier land sales—about $6 million—leaves a big gap.
Monte Haynes, a private developer who works for the firm GVA Kidder Mathews and has developed dozens of commercial buildings in the past 35 years, says the county’s current plan is vastly too expensive.
Haynes studied the project’s troubled history and the outline of what the county planned to build for $21 million. At his own expense, he consulted with architecture and construction firms to develop a proposal he says would save $8 million. He has communicated an offer to all five commissioners, whom he says have refused to meet with him.
Peggidy Yates, who has been Wheeler’s point woman on the project, acknowledges Haynes’ communication but says Haynes has not followed protocol. “He has been invited to take part in our [request for proposals bidding] process, but has not done so,” Yates says.
Haynes says the county’s process is flawed and, more importantly, its end result is flawed. He says his interest in the project is not to get the work but to save taxpayers money.
“I’m not asking them to select me but to listen to me so they will understand that they can save a guaranteed minimum of $8 million,” he says.
Cogen says he’s eager for some clarity.
“I have asked questions all along about whether there are cheaper alternatives or, if we’re going to do this project, how we are going to pay for it,” Cogen says.
The county will hold a 6:30 p.m. public meeting on the project March 30 at Parklane Christian Reformed Church and commissioners will get a project update on April 22.