Lynnwood City Council votes to assume $62 million debt for the planned Community Justice Center

Lynnwood City Councilmember Ruth Ross responds to Councilmember Smith’s motion to eliminate the city’s “head tax” on March 22. 

Aiming to provide more advanced services to individuals in need, the Lynnwood City Council voted Monday to assume $62 million in debt to cover the cost of redeveloping the city’s police department and municipal courts.

The $64 million Community Justice Center project includes renovating the existing Lynnwood Police Department building — located at 19321 44th Ave. W. —  as well as expanding east to the adjacent vacant site. The council, which had discussed the draft ordinance earlier this month, voted 6-0 at its March 22 meeting to adopt an ordinance providing for the issuance, sale and delivery of bonds to pay for the project.

Prior to voting, Councilmember Shannon Sessions said the city has been planning the center for more than 15 years. Over the years, she said the project has taken many shapes but the timing was right to move forward with the project.

“Now, the vision of this Community Justice Center is more inclusive, more thoughtful and more relevant to our community and the people we serve,” she said. “I truly believe that this plan and the theme of this particular Community Justice Center answers a lot of the questions that people hope will happen to make the community more inclusive.”

According to the draft ordinance, the proposal sets the maximum interest rate at 5% (and maximum true interest rate at 4%) through Dec. 31, 2050. As described previously, debt service associated with the Limited Tax General Obligation (LTGO) bonds consists of $500,000 a year of Criminal Justice Sales Tax revenue, contract jail cost savings and revenue generated through other agencies’ use of Lynnwood’s correctional facility.

After multiple space needs studies determined that the police department, jail and municipal court have outgrown their current facility, city officials decided to renovate the existing building as well as expand east to the adjacent vacant site. The redevelopment would also add a new public entry for safer public screening, another courtroom and a private assessment area.

Though he conceded it was a large amount of money, Council President George Hurst said he remains convinced the project will help the city and its residents. In addition to expanding the existing jail to provide greater capacity for inmates, the city plans to partner with the neighboring Community Health Center (CHC) to help inmates meet court mandates like drug addiction and mental health treatments as well as health assessments like HIV testing for intravenous drug users. The partnership will help both organizations provide a continuity of care for those low-level misdemeanor offenders.

“I do believe lives will be changed in this facility,” Hurst said. “It’s just the beginning. This is just the construction of a building. What happens after it’s built is what we need to work on.”

Hurst also said the new center could help the city find answers to other issues. For instance, as patients leave the facility after receiving treatment, Hurst said the council could find a need for transitional housing to help keep folks off the street and prevent them from reverting to old habits. Hurst added that the project is “almost entirely” self-funded through the police department, which will save money spent having to contract housing for inmates and evidence at other facilities. 

However, some community members said the city should not be investing money in law enforcement. Jennifer McLaughlin, who serves on the city’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Commission, praised the council for the work the city intends to do with the center, but said she was concerned about the timing given the issues over the past year regarding police and people of color.

In addition to providing more funding for communities of color, McLaughlin suggested the council fill the race and social justice coordinator position included in the city’s 2021-22 biennium budget. 

“If you choose to build the community justice center, let’s be sure it is a center for justice for all — a place that advances equity by redistributing access and opportunity that is fair and just,” she said.

According to staff, the race and social justice coordinator would be a paid city employee whose primary responsibilities would be working with the mayor’s office to promote racial equity citywide. The position would be funded with unused money from the city’s vacant intergovernmental liaison position.

Since approving the position last November, the council has voted twice to delay filling it – the first time because they wanted additional information about the job’s description from city staff and the second time after some councilmembers said staff failed to provide any new information.

The position has garnered the support of staff in the Human Resources Department and Mayor Nicola Smith’s office, members of the DEI commission and those on the city’s equity teams. During the Monday meeting, DEI Chair Naz Lashgari again asked the council to fill the position.

“The council voted four to three not to approve the coordinator position,” she said. “With this vote you are saying to me there is no need for action to undo the actions of systematic and institutionalized racism, there is no racist issue (in) our city, and there is no need for a race and social justice coordinator in the City of Lynnwood.”

Digital 3D rendering the future Community Justice Center (Images via Mackenzie)

The council also heard from community members who were dissatisfied with the lack of community involvement when deciding to take on the debt for the center. During the public comments, Lynnwood resident Elizabeth Lunsford requested the council hold a public hearing on the matter before voting.

According to Lunsford, the city’s only communication to the public was a press release in early 2019 — when the project was estimated to cost $48 million — until it was mentioned again in a recent city newsletter.

“I just ask for one public hearing because the communication about (the center) has been manipulative and 100% strategic,” she said.

Also during the meeting, Councilmember Jim Smith made a motion – which failed on a 6-1 vote — attempting to eliminate a head tax in the city. 

The topic of the city-imposed tax that some business owners are required to pay came up when the council hosted recent roundtable discussion with local business owners. During the meeting, some participants cited it as an unnecessary imposition on business owners and encouraged the council to eliminate it. 

Among other concerns, Councilmember Ian Cotton said he was hesitant to support Smith’s motion since it did not address the impacts the lost revenue would have on the city’s finances.

Council President Hurst said the topic would be better suited for the March 29 work session, which he said had room on its agenda for a debrief of the recent business roundtable.

Councilmember Ruth Ross said that the city does not have a “head tax,” a term that became familiar to many when the City of Seattle attempted to impose one. She said the city does have a tax similar to one, but if Smith wants to remove it, he needs to use the proper terminology. 

The council will revisit the topic at its March 29 work session during a debrief on the business roundtable discussion.

Also during the meeting, Councilmember Cotton announced he will be vacating his seat on the council effective April 13. Read more about it in Lynnwood Today’s previous story.

–By Cody Sexton

  1. More grandiose excuses to steal lawfully. How noble. They must be expecting a major influx of Seattle homeless.

    1. Saturday: 03/27/2021

      Whoa!! Gary! Your City Council Members are also your Neighbors and Reside in Lynnwood.
      The Current City Council has worked to Make sure Lynnwood has Escaped the Homeless
      Problems of Seattle, Everett & Bellingham, Whew!

      I’m Disappointed in your “Knee Jerk Reaction Comment”. Put a little thought in before you
      Bad Mouth your Neighbors!

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