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King County Courthouse is ‘up to its keister in alligators’

Why has the area around the King County Courthouse in Seattle become such a nightmare? The King County Council sought answers to that question on Tuesday.

“The two City of Seattle parks adjacent to the courthouse are virtually open-air drug markets,” Presiding Judge Laura Inveen told the council.

“Assaultive and threatening behavior, lewd conduct and drug dealing can be seen from the courthouse steps on a daily basis,” she said.

RELATED: Pierce County cracking down on drug dens

Jurors have frequently reported being attacked on the street. Public drug use and dealing are other reported problems. Then there are people going to the bathroom on the sidewalks. The issues are not new to the area, but as Councilmember Claudia Balducci noted, the magnitude has become dramatically worse in recent months.

“We need to come up with some concrete plans,” said Councilmember Peter von Reichbauer. “We can’t keep kicking the can forward here.”

The King County Council convened a panel Tuesday to get to the root of the matter. Each source provided a piece of the puzzle as to why the environment has gotten so bad. In short: All of Seattle’s problems from homelessness to drugs converge here, and the county hasn’t provided enough funding to address the issues.

King County Courthouse problems

The panel included Sheriff John Urquhart, Metro Captain Jose Marenco, and Captain Mike Teeter with Seattle’s West Precinct. Caroline Whalen, with the county’s Department of Executive Services, and Anthony Wright, director of facility management, were also present.

“There’s an old saying; when you’re up to your keister in alligators, now is not the time to drain the swamp,” Urquhart said, further commenting that the council needs to get the alligators off the keisters of people going to court.

One immediate solution is funding two deputies to patrol Third Avenue on foot. But the county will have to pay for it, Urquhart said. That would cost about $150 an hour for the two cops.

Captain Teeter said that there are a variety of factors to blame, such as poverty, mental illness, and homelessness. Services for those issues can be found neighboring the King County Courthouse. It leads to people hanging around the parks, yet Teeter also said that hanging around in a park is not illegal.

Despite the suggestion to increase patrols, the officers said that policing is not the solution to the problems around the courthouse. Addressing the factors that lead people to the area is a bigger concern.

“Police should be the last resource in this situation,” Metro Captain Marenco said. “There are other things that need to be done and we should be the last resort.”

The solutions that the county is crafting are not all about cops, according to Whalen. It is approaching the matter from a holistic perspective — services, public safety, sanitation. But budgeting for those solutions is yet another issue. Take the hygiene problem, for example.

“Based on the behavior of some of the people around the courthouse, in order to get rid of the urine it’s a two- to three-times-a-day operation on the south side of the courthouse,” Wright said. “We are prepared to increase the frequency, I’m not sure what frequency is needed to get it to the point where it’s not there.”

But to do that, Wright said he will have to divert funding and resources from other responsibilities.

Another idea is to open a currently closed entrance to the courthouse.

“We have discussed what it would cost to reopen the Fourth Avenue entrance,” Whalen said. “The staffing cost for that is about $400,000 a year. Sheriff Urquhart has talked about adding folks, again that is a budget issue for (the county council).”

Whalen also said they have been considering hiring light duty workers to help jurors find their way.

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