King County Proposition 1 would increase property taxes $210 million to rebuild the Youth Services Center near Seattle University. County officials admit it's a tough time to ask taxpayers for help but say they couldn't wait any longer to revamp the rundown center.

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Proponents of a $210 million property-tax levy to rebuild King County’s Youth Services Center acknowledge they have a tough sell.

King County Proposition 1 on the Aug. 7 primary ballot asks voters to increase taxes about $25 a year on a $350,000 home for the next nine years. The money would go to new buildings to serve juvenile offenders and abused children at the 9-acre campus near Seattle University. Levy funds would not be used for maintenance and operations.

The project is pitching bricks and mortar in a tough economy. It has reported relatively little in campaign contributions — $19,025, mostly from judges and attorneys. It’s competing on the primary ballot with a $123 million levy for Seattle libraries, also called Proposition 1.

“We don’t have a clear constituency that has money to give to a proposition like this,” said Jake Faleschini, campaign manager for the county’s Prop. 1. And it’s not easy, he said, to point to specific results that would come from new buildings for youths and their families.

But supporters believed they could wait no longer.

Replacing the aging and dysfunctional youth-center buildings has been a top county priority since 2008. Sinking an estimated $40 million into needed improvements in buildings that date back to 1952 would be throwing good money after bad, according to county officials.

“It’s like a beat-up, 15-year-old car,” Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn said when the levy was being considered. “At some point it becomes cheaper to replace than repair.”

Long list of woes

The litany of problems at 12th Avenue and East Alder Street are well documented.

Brown water flows from old pipes. Temperatures sometimes exceed 90 degrees in prosecutors’ offices because of a faulty heating-and-cooling system. Courtrooms are small. Security is less than ideal. Families lack private spaces to meet with attorneys.

Areas where families congregate are crowded, leading to disputes between rival teens and families. A drive-by shooting occurred outside the facility’s parking lot in 2009.

“After more than eight years of planning, punctuated by the intermittent crises in building operations and infrastructure, this situation is not sustainable,” King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Richard McDermott wrote County Executive Dow Constantine last year.

Constantine, McDermott, Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, former U.S. Attorney John McKay and all nine County Council members agree — it’s time to replace the rundown facility.

Constantine and the council had tried to do that in 2010, with a proposed sales-tax increase that would have included $150 million to replace the Youth Services Center courthouse and help with other public-safety needs. But voters rejected the measure.

The county then solicited ideas from private developers in hopes of a solution that would keep public costs down. But none was cost-free to taxpayers, and the highest-ranked proposal would have moved juvenile-justice operations to the old PacMed building on Beacon Hill, where neighborhood opposition quickly arose.

The plan now calls for modernizing the youth center’s courtrooms, offices and detention center. It also seeks to improve the urban design of the complex.

New buildings would be pushed back from their locations near street fronts and concentrated closer to the center of the campus.

The county would sell about 3 acres at three corners of the property. Private developers would hopefully pay an estimated $16.5 million for the land, which would offset construction costs, while also bringing housing and retail projects to the area.

County officials also hope for a zoning change that would allow buildings up to 85 feet tall and 425 apartments on the site. Current zoning allows 65 feet.

The northeast corner of the campus would remain a grassy open space.

The plan is for staged construction that would allow the full range of cases — child neglect, custody, juvenile offenses and truancy — to continue at the site while the project unfolds over seven years.

No organized opponents

Proposition 1 faces no organized campaign opposing it, although a group against incarceration in general has protested the rebuilding project. It argues that the county should redirect resources from the Youth Services Center to programs such as child care and drug treatment.

Seattle resident John Shackleford submitted a statement against the levy in the Voters’ Pamphlet.

Shackleford argues that property-tax increases have become unduly burdensome to homeowners. He calls the proposal the “latest salvo in class warfare waged for the benefit of renters and the homeless, demographics relatively unaffected by property-tax increases.”

Local property owners face two more proposals on the November ballot: a $120 million King County request to continue the county’s automated fingerprint system for criminal justice, and a $290 million Seattle bond measure to replace the seawall at the central waterfront.

Shackleford notes that those potential increases would come on top of recent tax hikes for emergency response, affordable housing, education and veterans and human services. “Citizens have had to economize; so should their government,” he said, but King County “prefers using homeowners as its ATM.”

Councilmembers have said that using property taxes to rebuild the youth-services center — which would be renamed The Children and Family Justice Center — is better than the failed 2010 proposal, which relied on sales-tax receipts.

The property tax is considered less regressive than a sales tax and has been traditionally used for county building projects, such as construction of the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent and remodeling Harborview Medical Center.

Constantine has said that asking voters to fund facility projects is what the Legislature “envisioned when it limited counties to revenue increases of 1 percent a year.”

The Municipal League of King County opposed the 2010 proposal because it relied on the sales tax, and the League wasn’t convinced county officials had exhausted other options. The Municipal League supports this year’s Proposition 1.

“The new facilities will allow for improved services and programs to youth and families, lower county operating costs and will add housing and open space to what is an underutilized, nine-acre parcel in an urbanizing neighborhood,” the League reported.

It encouraged county officials to add a citizens advisory committee, including neighborhood residents and business representatives, to oversee the project.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com