Whatcom courthouse renovation is $100K over budget, should be ready in January

The Whatcom County Courthouse is located at 311 Grand St. in Bellingham.
The Whatcom County Courthouse is located at 311 Grand St. in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald

Unforeseen problems put renovation of the Whatcom County Courthouse over budget. Despite the complications, a new courtroom still will be ready in time for the arrival of a fourth Superior Court judge around the first of next year.

After tearing down walls between the old and new courthouse buildings, crews found dozens of problems that added to the workload of the contractor, Faber Construction of Lynden, county facilities manager Mike Russell said. He gave the County Council a briefing on the renovation on Tuesday, Dec. 9.

The $1.04 million contract to build a new courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse, and to make room on the fifth floor for offices displaced from the second floor, included a $94,800 cushion for unforeseen costs. That amount was exceeded by about $100,000, according to a memo detailing the request for additional money.

“This is a complicated project that for the most part has proceeded nicely,” county Executive Jack Louws said in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “We have a facility that does not have a well-documented history, making this project more difficult to estimate.”

The courthouse was expanded in 1992, Louws said, with a new building built alongside the original 1948 structure. The floors on the two buildings weren’t at the same level, making new connections between the buildings more difficult, Louws said. Plans had to be redrawn to leave undisturbed walls that were needed for handling earthquake stresses. Some fire walls needed to be extended, and fire-rated ceilings added, to meet current code, Louws said.

In all, “80-plus” tasks were added to the original project, leading to the cost overruns, Russell said.

Still, the renovation will be wrapped up “within days,” Louws said. “We’re ready to go into operation after the first of the year.”

Gov. Jay Inslee could appoint the new Superior Court judge any day. Louws told the council he had learned of the impending appointment last week.

The new judge was approved by the state Legislature in 2013. The state and county each pay half the salary of superior court judges, which will be $156,363 at the start of 2015. The state pays for benefits, and the county pays all associated expenses, including the building work.

Louws asked the council on Tuesday to juggle the funding sources for the renovation project so it could be completed on time.

An audio-visual system that will enable remote court appearances by inmates will be covered by the trial court improvement fund rather than the renovation project fund, which had no money left. The amount switched was $125,236, though officials said the full amount probably wouldn’t be needed.