September 2016 Bar Bulletin
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Maintenance Issues Plague Courthouse


I thought the word was “bustock.” I couldn’t find it even in the Oxford English Dictionary. Turns out the term that has become a lingering worry in the courthouse is a “bus duct.” One thing about being a presiding judge in King County: It is never dull.

Take the day last month I learned about the “bustocks” in our building. The county’s director of facilities asked to meet with me about an urgent matter. I have long known that all of the major infrastructure systems in the downtown courthouse are on the brink of collapse — those are the electrical, HVAC and plumbing systems. But Director Tony Wright, a retired Army colonel who served in Iraq, wanted to bring to our attention a specific issue that had recently jumped to the top of the priority list: Our two copper bus ducts were in danger of failing. So, why is this potential failure more important than the failing HVAC system?

Bus ducts are the electrical spine of the building. These ducts full of solid, copper bars enable power to get from the basement all the way to the 9th floor (above that, cables take over). Bus ducts are supposed to be replaced every 30 years because the insulation around them degrades over time. This can cause an electric arc, which in turn causes the copper in the vicinity of the arc to vaporize. Unfortunately, our bus ducts were last replaced about 50 years ago. None of this sounded good.

Indeed, it is not good. Someone nearby could be hurt in the event of what Col. Wright described as a “little” explosion. But, he said, our bus ducts are wrapped in wire mesh and clay tiles, and are surrounded by marble panels. This provides a lot of protection to those of us working nearby.

More important, he said, this is an extremely “low probability” event. We are more likely to experience an earthquake than an exploding bus duct. He would be happy to put his desk next to one of these things.

The human mind being what it is, though, the novelty of a bus duct failure compounded by the dread instilled by the thought of an explosion (even a “little” one) causes us to overreact. I pride myself on being calm in the face of risk, but even I woke up with a nightmare after that meeting with the colonel. We all know intellectually that we are much more likely to be bitten by a dog than a shark, but it’s the sharks we make movies about.

After we got over the initial shock, my colleagues and I started asking questions. Why had this issue just now come to the county’s attention? And why weren’t the bus ducts replaced on time given the magnitude of the consequences in the event of failure?

Two words: deferred maintenance. Col. Wright indicated that the bus ducts had been on the county’s “honey do” list for a couple of decades, and earlier this year he even highlighted their potential failure in remarks to the County Council. But in any given year, the county actually funds just 8–12 percent of the maintenance it is supposed to be doing on all its buildings.

Why is that? It’s because of the antiquated tax structure I write about almost every month, which leaves us pitting plumbing against public health, electricity against the Elections Office, and HVAC against criminal justice. Of course, invisible stuff that we all take for granted loses out when, in order to fix it, we would have to cut programs that help needy people or keep us safe.

Replacing all of these failing infrastructure systems would cost on the order of $170 million. The King County auditor raised the alarm about sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into this building without considering the alternative: a new, modern building where prisoners would not have to be paraded through the public hallways in chains. The County Council directed the Facilities Department to arrange for a consultant to investigate and tally all of the costs of catching up on the deferred maintenance and to compare that figure to the anticipated cost of a new building.

In the process of doing this, the consultant apparently came upon the bus ducts. The consequences of their failure were made very clear and all of a sudden this became an emergency. Of course, today these ducts have the same risk of failure that they had last month, but it just doesn’t feel like that’s true.

Even if we end up moving out of this building and into a modern one, before we could sell the building to a developer to turn into condos or something, these bus ducts would have had to be replaced on the county’s dime. So, the $11 million that this project would cost is an expense we would have to incur now or later — and better to make our staff and the public as safe as possible in the meantime.

Of course, a new building makes more sense than pouring money into this one. But in the years it would take to get a levy passed, and get the building designed and permitted, let alone constructed, some of these systems could fail and we would have to sink money into the old building anyway. I can’t help but notice that I’ve been in this position for almost three years and we still have not broken ground on the new juvenile justice building. Look how hard it is for the City of Seattle to build a badly needed new police precinct.

Considering the political struggle a new courthouse would require, there are good (if frustrating) arguments for staying put and investing in this building. But I want to come back to the reason I find it shocking that I am now valuing our director of facilities for his experience dealing with IEDs in Iraq as much as his civil engineering prowess. Our county is so underfunded that we let a potential disaster like this fester for more than 20 years until political happenstance forced county government to stop deferring maintenance on this particular item.

This is yet another reason why legislators — from both sides of the mountains — should want to enable counties to fund themselves adequately. Every courthouse in this state no doubt has its “bustock,” and it is sure better to find out what it is, how to spell it, and how to fix it before it explodes.

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