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County to back gov center bonds

The six-story, 104,000-square-foot government center building that’s been in the making for downtown Bremerton for years became all but a certainty Monday.

Before a standing-room-only crowd, the Kitsap County commissioners unanimously opted to back the $18 million in revenue bonds the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority plans to sell to cover most of the $25 million estimated cost of the project.

The Bremerton City Council is expected to meet tonight and render a decision about its financial role in the project.

According to housing authority officials, they plan to sell the bonds on March 6 and receive revenues by March 14.

The government center, planned for between Fifth and Sixth streets bordering Pacific Avenue in downtown Bremerton, could be finished by the fall of 2004, with construction getting underway as early as next month.

County budget analysts say the commissioners’ approval all but assures an interest rate that’s 1 percent lower than would otherwise be attainable, creating a significant savings for the government entities buying into the project.

Because the county is backing the bonds for the government center project, the county will receive interest earnings on the bond itself, as well as from another tenant-based reserve fund. Earnings from those reserves could amount to $1 million over the next 30 years.

“It is time,” said county commissioner and board chairwoman Jan Angel. “We’ve promised the taxpayers good, common-sense decisions, and this is an investment.”

Earlier in the planning stages, Angel voiced concerns about the project, primarily because the City of Port Orchard feared it would lose a significant amount of economic stability and revenues if the county moved many of its administrative and executive offices to the planned government center.

But ultimately a Pierce County Superior Court decision changed the scope of the project, and it’s one that Angel and city officials are more comfortable with.

Instead, the county plans to move the Washington State University Cooperative Extension office to the government center, as well as its Community Block Grant Development program.

Remaining county offices — the commissioners, county clerk, treasurer, auditor and others — will instead be moved to a new administration building planned for just north of Division Street and across from the courthouse.

The county’s Area Agency on Aging, which was to move to the government center as well, will stay at Givens Community Center.

“This is not a giveaway of taxpayers’ money,” said Angel, attempting to allay critics’ fears. “We stepped back and restructured the government building.”

County Commissioner Patty Lent also approved backing the bonds, saying the government center is not the same center that was first planned for Kitsap County.

“It’s a center for all kinds of different businesses,” Lent said. “My whole concept in this is that it’s not just spending your (taxpayers’) money, it’s investing it.”

North Kitsap Commissioner Chris Endresen, who says she remembers when the four cities and the county were known to bicker more frequently, said she was pleased to see this most recent evidence of communication, debate and cooperation.

“At long last, the planets are aligning over Bremerton, and so, too, are they aligning over all of Kitsap County,” she said.

Its supporters and planners say the government center is the centerpiece of an overall revitalization effort for downtown Bremerton — a visual and economic boost expected to benefit the entire county economically and psychologically.

Elected city officials, representatives from area chambers of commerce, business representatives, former Bremerton Mayor Lynn Horton and other supporters crowded the county commissioners’ chambers to encourage the commissioners to move forward with government center plans.

“We will many, many times over pay for this project in terms of the tax revenues generated from it,” said Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman, rattling off statistics about construction jobs and the jobs the Bremerton government building will bring to the area. “We’re (the city of Bremerton) emotionally involved in this project.”

Bremerton city officials agreed.

“I personally want to get this project under construction as soon as possible,” said Will Maupin of the Bremerton City Council.

David Farr, a member of the Bremerton Housing Authority Board said the project is vital for all of Kitsap County.

“You get just one chance to make a first impression,” he said, “and what’s good for Bremerton’s economy is good for the county.”

Bremerton area residents Gerry Vanfossen and Tim Mathis raised objections at Monday’s hearing, and asked the commissioners to accept more public input and host more public meetings on the government center project.

“We’re spending a lot of county taxpayers’ money on downtown Bremerton,” Vanfossen said.

“I haven’t heard one taxpayer get a word in edgewise,” Mathis said.

In addition to the money to be bonded, about $4.75 million in cash will be paid out of the county’s Real Estate Excise Tax reserve fund.

The REET, currently charged during any real estate transaction, can only be used for capital improvement projects, not for the operational costs associated with running day-to-day governmental functions.

The Kitsap County Health District, which is to occupy two different floors of the government center, will contribute $1 million in cash from its reserves, and the city of Bremerton could also contribute about $250,000.

The county’s two offices, combined with the health district, are expected to occupy about 50 percent of the available office space.

The biggest tenant-owner is to be the Kitsap County Health District, which plans to move about 123 of its employees to the government center and away from its current headquarters on Austin Drive.

The Austin Drive office is a 1940’s era military barracks that’s not only too small for the current operation, but in disrepair.

Originally the health district planned to leave about 33 of its employees at the Austin Drive location near Jackson Park, relocating the remainder at the government center. But maintaining the older health district building and paying for space at the government center was too cost-prohibitive.

The county decided to step in and buy a bigger space for the health district and, in turn, the health district will enter into a lease-to-own agreement with the county.

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