Need for new Clackamas County courthouse is overwhelming
Recent newspaper stories have relayed concerns about the county budget, and questioned plans to build a new Clackamas County courthouse. We fear that this dialogue may result in the public wondering if a new courthouse is needed.
The answer is unequivocally yes! Our community is in dire and urgent need of a new courthouse. The residents and stakeholders of Clackamas County deserve to know the key information that makes this need overwhelming:
Our courthouse is obsolete. The existing courthouse, located in downtown Oregon City, was built in 1937. At that time, the county's population was slightly more than 50,000 and the courthouse was home to virtually every county department, the county jail and one courtroom. Today, our population is close to 420,000, and the county continues to grow at a fast rate. We've carved out enough space for 11 total courtrooms — but that's still three fewer than what our caseload demands require. We're completely out of space and we have no prospects for expanding. Equipment used to keep the courthouse operational is far past its useful life, and lots of overtime is spent keeping us hanging on. A failure is inevitable.
Seismic and geographic risk: The courthouse was not built to modern seismic standards, and retrofitting for seismic events is not a prudent decision given the enormous cost, especially when the courthouse no longer meets the needs of the community. Further, we're located on the bank of the Willamette River. And we don't mean near the bank, we mean on the bank. Our building is now less than one yard away from an eroding ledge. Back in 1981, when Judge Steele started practicing law at the courthouse, the building was 10.5 feet away. It doesn't take a legal scholar to see where this is going!
Delays of justice: Our current courthouse is so small that Clackamas County will not receive any additional judicial positions until a new one is built. As we haven't had enough room for additional judges for years, we've already been experiencing bulging caseloads. This leads to heartbreaking delays that have a real effect on people, like mothers who are only seeking child support. Some civil cases are scheduled one-to-two years out. Our delay time will only continue to lengthen.
Lack of security/safety: Our current courthouse is so small that victims and defendants share the crowded corridors. Families of perpetrators can be next to witnesses. Jurors have no assembly rooms on site, which at times can leave them exposed to improper communications and unsafe conditions.
Some 140 staffers from the District Attorney's office, judges and others from the Oregon Judicial Department, Sheriff deputies and other personnel continue to serve hundreds — sometimes thousands — of residents daily. But the simple fact of the matter is that the courthouse no longer adequately meet the demands of our increasing population.
The time to act is now, as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has presented itself. The state of Oregon has established a fund that can provide matching dollars toward the construction of a new courthouse. In 2017, the Legislature provided the county with $1.2 million for project planning costs. Last June, the Legislature authorized $31.5 million in state bond funds for the project — funds that are contingent upon Clackamas County securing a local match. Altogether, the state could cover $95 million in eligible project costs toward the potential $230 million project.
If Clackamas County doesn't match this money with local dollars, we would lose out on this immense partnership opportunity with the state. That's unacceptable. If this happens and then the courthouse becomes unusable due to its physical state, then we'll be financially on the hook for the entire cost of replacing it. Here's our choice. Pay some of the shared costs now or pay for all of it later.
Factoring in population growth, the significant safety risks and the unique opportunity, all of our residents should get behind building a new courthouse as soon as possible.
John Foote is Clackamas County's district attorney, and Kathie Steele is presiding judge of the Clackamas County Circuit Court.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.