A bigger court for Kent?

City and King County officials continue to struggle with the lack of court space at the Aukeen District Court building they share on Central Avenue South.

City, county negotiate

City and King County officials continue to struggle with the lack of court space at the Aukeen District Court building they share on Central Avenue South.

But there’s a light at the end of that tunnel.

After nearly two years of negotiation between city and county officials, the city is considering funding the addition of three more courtrooms at the facility. The building currently has four courtrooms: two for county District Court and two for Kent Municipal Court. The city has leased a portion of Aukeen District Court from the county for municipal court space since 1998.

It would cost the city an estimated $7.5 million to add three courts and additional office space, said John Hodgson, city chief administrative officer.

“It’s a great plan and we have the full cooperation of the county,” Hodgson said in a phone interview Thursday. “We would have a solution to both courts’ needs.”

Staff will bring the proposal up for City Council vote in August and the County Council in September.

“We hope to have the agreements done by September,” Hodgson said.

If the project is approved, construction would start next year and be completed by January 2010. The project would be funded out of the city’s five-year capital improvement budget through limited tax general obligation bonds.

As part of the proposal, the city, which already has the right of first offer to purchase the property, would be given credit by the county for a portion of the construction cost if the city eventually buys the property. City officials also have proposed a new 20-year lease to replace the current lease that expired June 30.

Karen Reed, the county’s lead negotiator on the project, said something needed to be done to accommodate increasingly busy court calendars.

“The courts work together to share the use of the space, but both the municipal court and district court require needs for additional space,” Reed said. “We appreciate Kent’s effort to work with us on this effort.”

Kent started up its municipal court in 1994 to handle criminal misdemeanors within the city, such as petty theft, simple assault, prostitution and other similar cases. At first the city used Council Chambers at City Hall before more space was needed, and in 1988 the city made arrangements to lease space at the county’s Aukeen District Court.

The county, in turn, uses the district court to handle misdemeanors that occur in unincorporated areas, as well as in cities that contract with the county for court services.

But now both entities have outgrown the facility. In fact, negotiations between the city and county started about two years ago, after county officials told the city it needed to move out of the facility because the county needed all of the courtrooms.

Instead of trying to find land to build a new court, city officials proposed increasing space at the current facility.

“It also would be easier to have our courtroom remain next to our jail,” Hodgson said, noting the Kent Jail sits next to Aukeen District Court on the same street.

The county might eventually vacate the Aukeen facility in order to consolidate District Court with King County Superior Courts at the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in downtown Kent, Reed said. But no timeline exists on when such a move might happen.

Eventually The city would like to be able to use the entire Aukeen facility in order to move offices for the city prosecutors and probation staff from City Hall and the Centennial Center to the municipal court site.

If the expansion proposal gets the okay from both jurisdictions, city officials would be in charge of managing construction. That includes the challenge to keep the courtrooms operating at full capacity during the renovations.

Construction work would run from about 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. so that the courts could remain open during the day.

“It would be a little bit of an inconvenience,” Hodgson said.

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