Commissioners Stumped After Courthouse Seismic Study

Benton_County_Court_HouseThe Benton County Courthouse has long been lauded as one infamously dangerous infrastructure. The Cascadia quake is predicted by the Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup to occur sometime within the next 50 years at a 9.0 magnitude within a zone in the middle of the Pacific Northwest. This earthquake zone is now one of the most closely monitored on Earth.

Any jurors, criminals, and employees present in the courthouse when an earthquake hits could be buried in rubble, as the building would be leveled to the ground. Imagine that the jury duty assigned to you next month isn’t just a regular pain in the a*s. Imagine that it could literally kill you.

In September, the county finally took the initial steps in funding a review to find out just how structurally unsound this building might be—if, and when, a massive quake occurs. Consultants from Miller Consulting Engineers in Portland were commissioned for $40,000 to examine the building and ascertain which repairs were necessary to retrofit the structure to make it earthquake-safe.

The Benton County Board of Commissioners presented the engineers’ report to officials on March 1. On March 10 Public Works Director Josh Wheeler met with courthouse agency representatives to recommend the best solutions for paying for repairs and for proceeding with courthouse operations while repairs took place.

Three possible levels of reparation quality are listed in the consultant’s report. The cheapest option allows repairs that secure the building during a quake just long enough to permit the occupants to escape in time to survive. This would cost the county $6.7 million. Any course of action that would allow the courthouse to continue to be used would cost upwards of $9.1 million.

In their coverage of the building’s review, the Gazette-Times mentioned how difficult it is to prioritize the seismic retrofitting of our courthouse when compared to more socially viable sourcing of funds, like the construction of a public health building, a new jail, and a bike path between Corvallis and Albany.

This month, the Advocate spoke to three county commissioners and found out just how difficult it really would be to pay for any changes to the courthouse in its current state of repair and disrepair.

The prospect of procuring capital to fund such a project is daunting. Though the state has a seismic rehabilitation grant program, the bulk of the money that comes from this program is restricted to schools, and the remainder goes to police stations and hospitals—buildings with responders.

“A courthouse is not a building with personal responders,” explained County Commissioner Jay Dixon.

A second option for funding could be found in a partnership between the Association of Oregon Counties and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Oregon. “That program persuades the legislature to allocate money for the repair of courthouses or for the replacement of courthouses,” said Dixon. The problem with this option is that it’s a competitive process and, while the partnership could pay up to 50% of the cost for repairs, it’s hard for a county building to get on the list.

Multnomah County is getting $120 million from the program to build their new courthouse, a project listed at a total cost of $250 million. “These possibilities exist,” Dixon explained, “but in our case, we would have to get on the list—we aren’t on it—and it would be a few years away, and we wouldn’t get nearly the amount of money that they would get.”

There is a third option. “We’re looking for state or federal money to fund this,” said County Commissioner Chair Annabelle Jaramillo.

“I think it would take a bond measure,” expanded Vice Chair County Commissioner Anne Schuster. “We have so many facilities, we don’t think we can fund it on our own.” However, this choice is no simpler than the previous two. “In order to go through with a bond measure, the county would need a campaign and election, not to mention bids to allow the measure to be approved,” said Schuster. “That would need to be on an accelerated timeline.”

“I think anything would be a couple of years away,” added Dixon, when asked about how long it would take to secure a bond.

While unsure about where Corvallis would get the money to retrofit the courthouse, the commissioners are even less confident about whether the price tag on the repairs would be worth it. “There’s still no guarantees,” said Schuster. “We could put $10 million into this and after an earthquake it could still be unusable. If you don’t have the money, you try to get people out of there.”

At the latest meeting, the commissioners discovered yet another problem related to funding. “One thing I learned about that is worrisome,” said Schuster, “is that FEMA is looking to put a possible disaster deductible in place.” FEMA, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, charges counties with possible disaster sites large insurance deductibles when buildings are found to be unsafe given the prospect of a natural disaster, like an earthquake. In the case of Tillamook, where 17 disaster sites have been declared since 1997, the city was made to pay a deductible. “They are just in the middle of talking about it,” said Schuster, “and maybe it could [be paid] through the state… but it is worrisome in case something does happen.”

County officials say they are doing their best to find a solution for where to accommodate space for courthouse operations while repairs would be completed. The building includes three courtrooms, records and elections rooms, and a district attorney’s office. Jaramillo explained the initial problems of fixing a building that is usually filled with people. “If we have to retrofit the courthouse, we would have to move everyone,” she said. “Our facilities people are trying to do an inventory of what might be available.”

Relocating people from a courthouse into another building is not an easy task. “With a court,” explained Schuster, “you have to transport prisoners. It’s a complex system. It’s not like moving an office building, and it’s not going to be simple.” Shuster added, “We are looking at all of our spaces right now and trying to find if there’s some space we can rent.” Given security requirements, Schuster explained such a space might need to be remodeled to fit the court’s current needs.

Benton County officials have known for over 15 years now that the courthouse will become a veritable house of cards in the matter of an earthquake. “It’s not the first time we’ve had a report telling us about the status of the building,” said Jaramillo. “We’ve been worried about it for a while.”

Though all three commissioners have been long concerned about the current issue, they find that the seismic report and analysis has, in some ways, made the issue appear even more complicated. “I’m glad we had [the report] done so we have an understanding of what the structure is like and how to keep people from being harmed,” said Dixon. “But it leaves more questions than it does answers, as far as what we do next.”


Shuster added, “We are madly trying to figure out the best approach, but have no answers yet.”


By Kiki Genoa