Benton County breaks ground on $13.6M admin building

Benton County is tapping its $24 million capital projects fund to build sunlit offices for its administrators and free up space in its crowded Kennewick courthouse.

The county planned to hold public ground-breaking ceremonies for the $13.6 million, 40,000-square-foot office building on Feb. 17 at its Kennewick justice center campus, 7122 W. Okanogan Place.

The building will open in May 2021 as the new Kennewick home for the county commissioners and administration, as well as the Kennewick offices of the county treasurer, assessor and auditor.

The county’s official seat in Prosser is not affected by the new addition, said Matt Rasmussen, public works administrator.

The addition will free space in the Benton County Justice Center and the nearby Canal Street Annex for the criminal justice system, which is out of space due to growing court dockets. Prosecutors, public defenders and the clerk’s office all need more room, Rasmussen said.

With administrators out of the way, they’ll have more of it.

“It will be exclusively criminal justice in here,” Rasmussen said.

Prosser is still the county seat

The new office building is not an attempt to move the county seat to Kennewick from Prosser. But it acknowledges that some 80 percent of county business transpires in Kennewick, the population center. The additional space should accommodate growth for the next two decades.

It’s also not about mindless expansion of local government, Rasmussen said.

Population growth is driving up the number of cases heard in the superior and district courtrooms in the justice center.

“The commissioners have always been very big proponents of maintaining the smallest footprint,” he said.

An 18-month facilities study concluded a new administration building would create a more welcoming environment for people who have business with the county while reserving costly secured space in the justice center for the courts.

The project is funded through the county capital projects budget, which is supported by the general fund and payments the county receives from the federal government in lieu of property taxes.

The budget works out a little more than $286 per square foot, which includes finishes and furnishing space. That is generally in line with construction trends.

The base cost to build “prime” office space in Seattle in 2019 was $210 to $255 per square foot, excluding finishes and furnishings, according to a year-end report by Rider Bucknell Leavett, a construction management firm.

RBL reports on construction cost trends in major markets such as Seattle. Tri-City data wasn’t available.

Who goes where?

Rasmussen said the new addition in Kennewick will make more efficient use of existing county facilities and lower the cost to provide much needed office and courtroom space at the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Justice Center on Canal Drive.

The treasurer, auditor and assessor will vacate their shared 8,500-square-foot office at the Canal Drive Annex. The offices can be renovated to serve the juvenile center, which is on the same property.

The 252,000-square-foot Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick houses district and superior courts, prosecutors, defenders and the jail, which is why it has security guards and a metal detector at the entrance.

About one-fourth of the building is devoted to the commissioners and other administrators who don’t need that level of protection. 

They’ll move to the new building, which Rasmussen hastens to note will have passive security built into the design. There won’t be a screening station at the door at the outset.

Rasmussen said the space crunch in the justice center has real implications for the courts.

The county recently launched a new specialty court to serve veterans charged with crimes. Qualifying veterans who get treatment and meet other conditions can get their records expunged.

Three authorized positions haven’t been filled because there’s nowhere to put them, Rasmussen said.

Veterans court is funded by the Public Safety Sales Tax, a voter-approved sales tax to combat crime. The county’s current budget earmarks $400,000 from the public safety tax to support seven positions in veterans court.

The building design includes a central atrium, shared ground-floor lobby and energy efficient features.

The parking spots nearest the building will be dedicated to short-term visitors who stop by to register to vote, pay taxes, register vehicles and take care of other county business.

The justice center campus

About 750 county employees work on the 23-acre Kennewick justice center campus. They’re posted to the justice center and jail, the health department, the coroner’s office and in a maintenance facility.

The 85 who now work at the annex will add to the population, which also includes roughly 500 jail inmates.

Parking is the main limiting factor for additional development. Rasmussen said there’s room to develop another 20,000 square feet of space once the office building is complete. It would have to build a parking garage to build more.

Rasmussen said there are no plans to add a coffee shop or other commercial activity on the property.

Past efforts to provide food and beverages at the county property didn’t take off and the neighborhood is packed with restaurants, fast food and other public services.

Benton County’s $13.6 million administration building is designed around a central atrium that will bring sunlight into interior areas at 7122 W. Okanogan Place in Kennewick. (Courtesy Benton County)

Paying for the project

The new administration building will bring new operating costs in terms of added utilities and maintenance. In its six-year capital projects budget, the county noted some costs would be offset by lowering Benton County’s share of operating costs at the Canal Street annex.

When the annex becomes part of the bi-county juvenile justice system, the county will split operating costs with Franklin County.

The new building will even eliminate one pesky expense – the $80,000 Benton County spends annually to store archived documents off site.

The basement was added to provide storage and speed up access to stored public documents. It will pay for itself in 10 years, Rasmussen said.

Banlin Construction LLC of Kennewick is the general contractor.

MMEC Architecture & Design of Kennewick, which conducted the facilities study, is the designer.

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