FOR MORE THAN a century, the seismically deficient Multnomah County Courthouse has threatened suffocating murder. If the big one hits, it's coming down.
So when the Oregon Legislature last year set aside $15 million for a new building, it injected fresh energy and an unending supply of hyperbole into a five-decade struggle. The county's judges, clerks, and prosecutors all see a window to escape the death trap looming over their work lives, and they're scrambling toward it as quickly as possible.
It's a tricky window, though. The legislature's $15 million has created tight deadlines, with officials hurrying to ask the state for millions more in coming years even as they try to identify how Multnomah County will fund its own portion of the mammoth endeavor.
At the same time, county officials have let $9 million earmarked for a new courthouse sit dormant for years.
And not everyone's comfortable with how things are going.
"I'm feeling like I don't have all the information," County Commissioner Loretta Smith said at a county board meeting in April. "It's making me really uncomfortable."
Here's the source of Smith's indigestion: By mid-May, the county will ask the Oregon Judicial Department to carve out room in its 2015-2017 budget to help fund the courthouse. The problem is no one knows what kind of courthouse the county's going to build, or even where. (Fixes to the existing building on SW 4th have been ruled out.) The project has long been expected to cost upward of $200 million, but firm estimates won't be available for months.
"We were a little surprised, at the staff level, that the state wanted this early of a request," says Michael Bowers, who directs the Multnomah County Facilities and Property Management Division.
Smith worries that asking for state money without knowing the total cost of a new courthouse is "out of order." Four separate officials at the recent board meeting sought to convince Smith the county could merely ask for enough funds to get the project underway, then come back for more later.
"That's just how these things play out," said Nancy Bennett, co-director of the county's government relations office.
At the same time, the county has yet to identify the $15 million in matching money it needs to get even the first influx from the state. And the fate of millions it won for the effort seven years ago is up in the air.
Back in 2007, the county inked a sweetheart agreement with the Portland Development Commission (PDC), the city's urban renewal agency. The PDC agreed to pay $9 million of the $10.7 million cost to move the Hawthorne Bridge's westbound off-ramp. That way, a county-owned plot bisected by the ramp could be used for a new courthouse.
According to the terms of the deal, the county was supposed to begin the project within five years. But nothing happened. An extension signed in 2012 will expire in November.
"For any number of reasons, it didn't come through the way people anticipated," says PDC spokesman Shawn Uhlman. "It's tough to speculate on how this thing plays out."
The PDC agreement would seem like an obvious boon. It would allow the county to prepare a plot of land it already owns—one that's blocks from the Multnomah County Detention Center. But project planners have made clear they're looking throughout downtown, the Pearl District, and even on the central Eastside for viable sites. Nothing's been chosen or even short-listed.
Even so, the county has stressed its plans to spend the PDC money, which is tied to development of the Hawthorne bridgehead land.
"The county has the $9 million," says county spokesman Hank Stern, "and intends to use it."