A new downtown courthouse is going to cost the county an extra $12.5 million.
County officials blame the added expense on the city for waiting nearly a decade before pulling out of the project.
They say the city’s abandonment of the project resulted in the county’s picking up the tab on about $6 million of architect and engineering fees, as well as about $2.7 million in excessive or unnecessary additions, plus around $3 million in interest on those items.
They say if they had known the city’s plans sooner, they could have adjusted and avoided the additional costs.
“They never hinted they were going to leave until the last minute,” said County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
But city officials contend the county’s revisionist history contains a few key omissions.
Among them, said Councilman Steve Kozachik, was that the city never once gave the county a green light to move ahead with the project.
“There were ongoing negotiations involving differences of opinion on millions of dollars worth of items,” Kozachik said. “They, and anybody who was paying attention, knew that we were actively weighing keeping the existing courthouse in operation. …They’re reinventing history if they’re trying to suggest that our taking up occupancy was a done deal.”
For years, the city and the county have squabbled over the complex near North Stone and Toole avenues.
In 2004, voters approved a $76 million bond issue to fund the entire project, But unanticipated expenses ballooned costs to about $143 million.
Despite lacking a firm commitment from the city, the county moved forward with construction in early 2012. Later that year, the county asked the city to pay its share of the cost overrides and even offered to loan the city $21 million.
But Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said the county’s offer would have been a bad deal for Tucsonans.
“Tucson taxpayers are county taxpayers too. City taxpayers have paid for the county, and city taxpayers have paid into the county’s general fund through property and other taxes,” Rothschild wrote in an email.
“It would not make sense for city taxpayers to be charged twice for a building they already helped pay to build, but won’t own, and then pay a lease on top of that.”
Rothschild said it wasn’t in the best interest of taxpayers for the city to pick up a tab for the extra expenses created under the current Pima County administration’s watch.
Since the city didn’t have money to pay for either a courthouse or a loan, it made one final offer to the county, to lease space in the building, but not pay for any extra costs.
The county rejected the offer in November 2012.
Although the city pulled out, the two sides never formalized a contract over the project, so the county doesn’t have a legal remedy to recapture its losses.
But that’s a mistake the county won’t repeat, Huckelberry said.
From now on, all projects involving the two entities will require a detailed agreement outlining who owes what to whom if one party decides to renege, Huckelberry said.
Other county officials agree.
“We’ve all learned that deals are about contracts and not about handshakes or promises, especially when it comes to a government we’ve had some raw deals with in the past,” said Supervisor Ray Carroll.
Carroll said the county will be more careful before jumping into future deals with the city.
“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” Carroll said. “I’m not going to be anxious to do any more cohabitations with the city based on this project.”
But Kozachik has little sympathy for the county.
He said the city wasn’t going to bail out the county for its “poor decision” to go it alone and start construction on the courthouse.
He did agree though with the lesson the county learned from the endeavor.
“Don’t put millions of dollars on the line when you know you don’t have an agreed-upon contract,” Kozachik said.