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County must build justice center right

It's more than frustrating that after years of discussion and months of property negotiations, the East Multnomah County justice center must again be delayed for further study.

However, there really is no alternative at this point but to follow Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler's advice and 'hit the reset button' on a project that ought to have been completed by now.

In suggesting that more clarity is needed on the scope and cost of the justice center, Wheeler says he is not backing off from his promise to East County to build such a center. The need for this facility is well documented. What's less understood is the center's skyrocketing construction costs.

Cost projections can't be trusted

It is those rising cost estimates that have prompted Wheeler to call for a timeout and ask stakeholders in the project to reconvene. Just a few years ago, the price for the justice center, which will be built in the Rockwood area of Gresham, was pegged at around $12 million to $14 million. By April of this year, as reported in The Gresham Outlook, the projected construction cost had reached $21 million and rising.

Last week, another round of estimates was released and they showed that the original 70,000-square-foot plan for the justice center actually would cost $32 million. The estimate was accompanied by two proposals to scale back the center - but even the smaller, dysfunctional designs offered by county officials would cost millions of dollars more than anticipated just a year ago.

Rather than engage in a useless debate over these competing designs and their accompanying cost estimates, Wheeler wisely suggests that the parties involved with the justice center get back together and better define what they truly want from this facility. Participants in these discussions will include an overall project team, the county facilities department, the sheriff's office, the city of Gresham, the district attorney's office and, of course, representatives of the courts.

The idea behind the justice center is to provide greater convenience to the 200,000-plus residents of Multnomah County who live east of Interstate 205, but must now travel to downtown Portland for their court services. The center, however, would provide other benefits as well. It would allow for relocation of the sheriff's office from its current decrepit facility, and it would be a boost to urban renewal in the Rockwood area.

Find other ways to pay for it

Wheeler and other county leaders appear willing to fulfill their commitment to East County citizens. But Multnomah County's poor track record for controlling costs on capital projects doesn't inspire much confidence.

To overcome public skepticism about the county's in-house abilities and to ensure an objective look at the project, Wheeler is correct to hire an outside project manager. County officials also may need to discard a few assumptions along the way - with one being the idea that the project can be funded only through the sale of surplus county land.

Up until now, the county has planned to use money from the sale of its properties - including land in Troutdale and the property occupied by the sheriff's office at Northeast 122nd Avenue and Glisan Street - to pay for the justice center. And indeed, the disposal of those properties could provide a substantial down payment toward the justice center.

But the sale of surplus land is hardly the typical way that governments finance new buildings. In most cases, they borrow money and pay off the debt over time. Multnomah County is in an ideal position to borrow. It has a low debt ratio, and once the East County justice center is up and running, the county may save money on the operational side that can be used to repay debt.

No one advocates that the East County justice center be shelved. But if it's going to be built, the county should do it right and realize the full benefits over the long term.