Thurston County's massive tax proposal for a fancy new courthouse has failed, so time for round two


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As we have reported recently, a variety of legal problems have plagued the passage of the Thurston County New Courthouse Tax proposal.  While Thurston County staff existed in a state of denial for many months attempting to ignore the many legal flaws with the ordinance, a few weeks ago they threw in the towel and accepted it was game over for the original tax proposal ordinance.  Even Thurston County staff could no longer prop up an ordinance with so many legal flaws. 

Thurston County Commissioner Gary Edwards has been opposed to this tax scheme from the beginning

The original ordinance (see here) illegally passed on a two to one vote (Commissioner Gary Edwards voted against it) on April 30, 2019 will now be abandoned.  Thurston County staff has yet to admit they broke the law publicly.  Predictably, the Olympian helped carry the water for staff’s talking points in this article brushing past the real reasons why Thurston County was going through the pain of a public hearing again (properly noticed this time).  Interestingly, the local Thurston County bar association was slightly more honest in their email to supporters of the courthouse tax, as they admitted euphemistically that “procedural errors” has forced a second hearing (see here).

The taxpayers of Thurston County clearly are not off the tax hook yet.  This recent reprieve is merely a temporary (and rare) victory for the rule of law in Thurston County, but like a bad penny, the new version of this bad ordinance is back (with the same original plan to put this massive tax proposal on an April 2020 ballot when few voters will be aware of the election), and a new public hearing is scheduled next week on October 22nd at 5:30pm in Room 152 at the courthouse (see the “notice” linked here).

Thurston County Commissioner Tye Menser

It is good news that Thurston County staff have been forced to follow the law.  It is also good news that newly elected Democrat commissioner Tye Menser was convinced to follow the law (Commissioner Edwards was always opposed to the ordinance, so taxpayers only needed one more commissioner to recognize the obvious legal flaws).  All three county commissioners get another shot to vote on this ordinance later this month. We are likely to see another split decision (2-1 in favor), but there is still another opportunity to express yourself on this new courthouse tax proposal The ordinance is still ugly (and it gets worse the closer anyone looks), but at least the proposal might be semi-legal now, which is a major improvement for Thurston County. 

If you can’t make the public hearing, you can also sign this petition (linked here) and make your comments known if you oppose this boondoggle.  If you support this new tax scheme, you can join the judges, bureaucrats, politicians, and attorneys who have jumped on this bandwagon and will be supporting this idea.

Always time to jump on the new courthouse tax plan bandwagon and join the high paid bureaucrats, lawyers, and judges who are pushing it

Comparisons between “old” ordinance and “new” ordinance

The new proposal still recommends a massive property tax increase (38.5% increase over current county rate).  It still will increase Thurston County’s debt by over 500% from the current debt level.  The new proposal will still force the residents of Thurston County to impoverish future generations for the 25-year life of the proposed debt (see here for an outline of how this will add almost $150 million in interest payments as an extra bonus to future generations).  The new proposal still rewards the Thurston County bureaucracy for the incompetent and willful neglect of maintenance on the current courthouse facility (interestingly “valued” at $7.8 million while still having a $108 million replacement cost assessment) in order to “justify” building an even bigger one.  However there are some changes.  Here they are:

First, to see these changes for yourself – the April 30th version of this ordinance can be seen here, and the new proposed version of this ordinance can be seen here.  These are the changes that stand out:

Nancy Nerass – finally legal
  • Nancy Nerass, the temporary employee of the Prosecutor’s office will still personally profit from the success of this tax increase, but at least this time she will actually legally hold the title she purports to have on the signature line. 
  • Future staff are more constrained on how they can spend the tax dollars they collect.  The new version theoretically requires them to spend the money on the actual proposed building, rather than on anything on which they might want to squander the taxpayer cash (see Section 2b linked here).  There still remains a question as to how this can be audited or enforced, but it was nice someone made the effort here.
  • No official location is defined in the new ordinance.  The original ordinance had the disastrous Plum Street (downtown Olympia) location clearly defined, but the new ordinance leaves this nebulous.  There is no reason to believe that the political pressure to locate this boondoggle in downtown Olympia has been reduced, but it looks like this location will now be concealed from anyone who just reads the ordinance, and it does allow the county to change locations if Olympia’s urban blight experiment goes too far.
  • No tax cost defined. The original ordinance also concealed the final initial tax proposal amount, but the new proposal explicitly explains that they will post this amount in February of next year (a few months before the vote). So, you really can’t tell how much you will pay, so we all have to estimate (the supporters and staff will pretend it will cost “very little” in the meantime).
Ramiro Chavez, Thurston County Manager

It also looks like Thurston County is going to attempt to comply with Washington State’s Open Public Meetings Act, which is a welcome improvement over recent behavior.  It should be noted that County Manager Ramiro Chavez was forced to admit that the county was failing to comply with this law, and has proposed some changes to policy to ensure better compliance (this was recently changed to county code Section 2, but the changes probably won’t post for another month).  While we don’t support the reduction in public notice times, at least making an attempt to follow the law is a big improvement over past behavior.

While this new ordinance is now semi-legal, that doesn’t make it a good ordinance or a good idea.  There are many reasons to continue to oppose this policy choice, and there are some better options taxpayers should carefully consider (staff will ignore all alternative options until this one fails). 

Thurston County staff enjoy tossing tax grenades at residents

Why this proposed courthouse scheme is still a bad idea

We have produced a variety of videos and articles about the problems with this $250-$300 million courthouse tax proposal, and most of those problems still exist.  These problems have been well documented in the videos and previous articles which are linked at the end of this article.  If you don’t believe us, no problem.  Just look at the source documents linked at the end of this article and come up with your own analysis.  However, to summarize these problems, they are as follows:

In Thurston County taxes will never be high enough for the bureaucrats and their plans
  1. Too expensive.  A 38.5% property tax increase for Thurston County taxpayers on the county portion of their property taxes is the largest tax increase ever imposed by Thurston County.  The supporters of this ordinance, who are closer to the upper 1% income than the lower 75% income in the county might not consider the cost increase much, but they can afford it more easily than the rest of us who actually have to pay it.
  2. Too much debt.  A 500% increase (or more) is too much debt to saddle ourselves and future generations with in Thurston County for a fancy courthouse.  Please note, this assumes that Thurston County won’t add additional debt (which they will), and this doesn’t even consider the additional $150 million interest payments (see here).
  3. Using General Obligation Bonds vs. Revenue Backed Bonds (also known as unlimited tax general obligation bonds or “UTGO”) is a poor policy choice.  This will almost certainly extract money from the existing general budget (reducing available money for all county services including law-enforcement), and will most certainly be cataclysmic to public safety if there is a downturn in the economy in the future (see video explaining this problem here).  This was a political choice (to reduce the threshold of voter approval from 60% to 50%), but it is a poor policy choice for short term political gain (if you don’t believe us, just read the minutes from the work sessions on this program – linked here ).
  4. A 15-year policy of a willful failure to maintain the existing structures (like refusing to repair leaky roofs) is being rewarded with a fancy new building.  Rather than demonstrate that the county staff can manage the assets taxpayers already own (which isn’t sexy, but it is prudent and necessary), the bureaucracy decided to reward this incompetence and failure with a brand new fancy courthouse (which also won’t be properly maintained).  Please note, it has been publicly acknowledged by Assistant County Manager Robin Campbell in the recent county budget amendment hearing under cross examination by citizen Jon Pettit that no money has been budgeted for adequate maintenance for this new proposed facility either.
  5. The proposed location in downtown Olympia (Plum Street) remains a terrible choice.  A location rated by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources as a high risk for liquefaction during an earthquake (the current location is considered low risk) – see DNR report linked here.  There have also been almost no studies about the existing salmon stream that is currently in a culvert at the same location over which the new courthouse would be built.
  6. The City of Olympia can’t (won’t?) pay their fair share.  The location choice is also a problem because this was a political decision made to rescue Olympia from the failures of the council to manage their own budget or city effectively.  The financial inability of Olympia to pay the “planned” $26 million for their “share” of the building is one problem.  A second problem is Olympia’s ongoing experiment with expanding and supporting urban blight with subsidized homeless/addict camps and a litany of poor planning decisions, which almost certainly will reduce the ability or willingness of people from the county to use this courthouse, although it will be more convenient for local drug addicts, who are frequent flyers in the local court system.  More importantly, the City of Olympia has no plans in their budget to pay their portion of this proposal (despite the fact that Thurston County taxpayers gave the City of Olympia $200k (see here) to help them plan for this).  Interestingly enough, if one looks closely at the proposed courthouse plan, the City of Olympia would get a lot of free subsidies from Thurston County voters to even be involved in this project (see here).
  7. Thurston County still hasn’t effectively budgeted for maintaining the proposed courthouse (as referenced earlier).  Despite the impressive and willful failure to even marginally maintain the existing courthouse, Thurston County staff appear to be repeating the mistake they made when they built the ARC (Accountability and Restitution Center, AKA “The Jail”), which they built without taxpayer approval and then failed to budget for staffing, so it sat empty over five years and helped turn Thurston County’s previous Commissioners (Wolfe, Romero, and Valenzuela) into the punchline of jokes throughout Washington State. 
  8. Thurston County has a terrible track record of building anything.  Anyone bothering to research Thurston County’s history of constructing buildings can see a pattern of incompetence and failure (see here and here, and here).  This history of failure should cause thoughtful people to pause and carefully consider new building proposals of any kind.  However, this careful consideration should turn into a four-alarm emergency warning siren when we see poorly thought out mega proposals like this one
  9. Schedule the vote on a low-voter turn out date (April), rather than when more voters are likely to participate (November). This was a conscious effort to reduce voter participation.

There are many more reasons to oppose this proposed scheme, but these highlights should help set the stage for our concerns.  This project has all the makings of a complete and total financial fiasco which will only become a fiscal black hole likely to dwarf all other local policy concerns and with the unique and distinct potential to greatly reduce the quality of life in Thurston County. 

It is probably wise for the taxpayers of Thurston County to show up at next weeks public hearing on October 22nd at 5:30pm in room 152 at the courthouse (see notice here).  If you can’t show up but still oppose this boondoggle – sign this petition and make your comments – those comments will be submitted to the county commissioners at that public hearing.  If you like the idea of this scheme, you can go here and donate to the lawyer and judge founded PAC pushing more taxes on you and your neighbors.  The future belongs to those who show up.

When people show up at these hearings it makes a difference. Hope to see you there.


Background articles and documents:

How many laws were broken by Thurston County in push for Courthouse tax?

Local petition in opposition to courthouse tax scheme (plus add comments)

Thurston County Courthouse – a planned disaster

Massive Thurston County tax increase proposed for $300 million new courthouse scheme

Thurston County’s new courthouse tax – local citizen drafts more cost effective alternative

Thurston County Courthouse proposal – a bad idea (video)

Thurston County’s Expensive Courthouse tax (part2) (video)

City of Olympia proudly showcases beautiful addict/homeless camps – now THIS is progress!

Thurston County Bar Association email supporting courthouse tax scheme – Oct 10, 2019

New Proposed Tax for Courthouse Ordinance – October 22, 2019 hearing

Thurston County work session minutes for March 20, 2019, January 31, 2019, and others – classic statements about colluding to convince the public this was a good idea.

The cost of paying for the proposed $250million bond over 25 years – assuming 4% interest and biannual payments

Artificial “assessment” of current courthouse indicating a value of $7.8 million compared to $108 million replacement costs

Thurston County Board of County Commissioners Agenda – April 30, 2019

Letter from Citizen Jon Pettit to Thurston County Commissioners expressing concerns about legality of the Courthouse Tax Ordinance – September 16, 2019

Letter from Thurston County Manager Chavez to Citizen Jon Pettit saying that even if the signature is illegal, it doesn’t matter – Sept 4, 2019

Last minute contract with Nancy Neraas making her a “special deputy prosecuting attorney ” signed a week after she falsely represented herself as such on Thurston County Ordinance, note that Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Thunheim never dated his signature.

Nancy Neraas vendor contract (July 2018-2021) as bond counsel. Will profit from the Thurston County Courthouse tax (if it passes)

RCW 84.55.050 with highlights – mainly focused on showing how this law requires the amount to be taxed (the dollar rate) shall be specified in the final ordinance

Thurston County Courhouse tax ordinance – proposed version for April 23, 2019 hearing – note, on this one they specified the property tax amount of $1.69 (see page 3).

Thurston County Courthouse tax ordinance – Signed by two Commissioners (Menser and Hutchings) on April 30, 2019 – note serious changes made by staff after hearing without official approval by Commissioners.

WA Dept of Natural Resources – 1999 Geologic Map GM-47 – Geologic Folio of the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater Urban Area, Washington: Liquefaction Susceptibility Map

What happens if the bond is approved, and a mini-recession hits? How Thurston County public services would be cut

PFM Financial Advisors – Mar 8, 2019 – report to Thurston County, WA – Potential Use of Levy Lid Lift – Update

Thurston County Commission Minutes – August 14, 2018 – see Item 5a and 5b for a $200,000 City of Olympia “Interlocal Agreement for new courthouse” and $300,000 for New Courthouse “Consultant”

Thurston County Commission Agenda – April 30, 2019 – see Item 6a for new tax proposal

Thurston County Elway Poll Survey (conducted March-April 2019) summary

Thurston County Elway Poll Survey supporting doc – crosstab banners

Thurston County Elway Poll Survey supporting doc – topline

Thurston County Courthouse Draft Feasibility Report – 12-14-18

SouthSoundBiz – “Thurston County to Place New Courthouse Request on April 2020 Ballot”

The Olympian – ” Vote to pay for Thurston County’s new courthouse not coming until April 2020″

The Olympian – “County commissioners vote 2-1 to move courthouse to downtown Olympia”

Thurston County demonstrates how NOT to build a jail

Thurston County spends $8 million and 18 years to make a $4 million empty building worth $2 million

Childish political leadership in Thurston County is costing taxpayers millions

Thurston County staff create fraudulent data to justify tax increase

Thurston County Manager Cliff Moore quits, will now plague the City of Yakima

A plague of Consequences

Jon Pettit – Plan A – proposed in July 2019 as better, more cost effective option

Document detailing Life Cycle Engineering and Budgeting for Public Facilities (Hint: Thurston County building maintenance doesn’t even come close to this)

“Yes for Safety and Justice” website (supports tax)