Clatsop County will borrow up to $4 million for the planned remodel of the county courthouse.

The county commissioners voted Wednesday to authorize the loan from Bank of the Pacific to fund the project, which will create a third permanent courtroom in the 104-year-old building in downtown Astoria.

"We have to do this project, and we need to get moving forward, and I want to see us have the funding so this does not have to be done piecemeal," said Commissioner Helen Westbrook.

The Oregon Legislature last year approved a third judge for Clatsop County to ease the high caseload of its two current circuit court judges. Four candidates are vying in the May 16 primary election to fill the new position.

The state will fund the salaries of the judge and the judge's support staff, but the county is responsible for providing the courtroom and staff offices.

Finance Director Mike Robison told commissioners Wednesday that the bank loan is the most cost-effective way to raise all the money for the project at one time, so that the work doesn't have to be spread out over a lengthy period.

County officials want the job finished by January 2007, when the new circuit court judge takes office.

The project, estimated to cost $4.1 million, involves installing the third courtroom on the building's main floor, plus adding or renovating space for court staff, victims services and grand jury sessions, and building a holding facility for offenders awaiting court appearances.

It also covers the cost of relocating the county juvenile department from the courthouse to the county office building at 800 Exchange St., and moving the district attorney's office into the vacated juvenile department space.

The 15-year loan, with an interest rate of 4.5 percent, would cost the county an estimated $367,200 a year if repaid over the entire 15-year period. The county will use its share to state timber revenue, currently about $3 million a year, to cover the loan. The loan could be paid back sooner depending on the amount of timber dollars the county receives, but there are no forecasts beyond the 2006-07 fiscal year, Robison said.

Westbrook asked why the loan was for $4 million when the county also has $1.2 million set aside for the project. Robison said he wanted to ensure that enough money was available if the actual construction bids came in higher than the cost estimates, as has been the case with a number of other recent building projects.

Bank of the Pacific, headquartered in Aberdeen, Wash., offered the best loan package of six lending institutions contacted by the county, according to a staff report.

Robison said that during the construction period the loan funds can be invested in a short-term CD offering a higher interest rate than the loan. The resulting windfall would be tax-exempt and could be used to pay some of the project costs.

In other business the board approved funding for seven local nonprofit entities from the upcoming county budget. The county provides $15,000 a year for local social service group.

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