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News / Northwest

Floods put WA historic documents at risk, but a new home is pricey

By Claire Withycombe, The Seattle Times
Published: December 10, 2023, 5:40am

OLYMPIA — What do Sasquatch, Hulk Hogan and Susan B. Anthony have in common?

History binds them together in the 1963 Washington State Archives building, constructed several stories underground in Olympia.

Its vaults — dense warrens filled with bankers boxes and leather-bound books — contain thousands of government records that span Washington’s history.

There’s Hogan’s 1986 state wrestling license application, and legislative journals from 1871 showing Anthony spoke to lawmakers about women’s suffrage. And a copy of a 1970 proclamation Gov. Dan Evans signed to declare “the Great Sasquatch” the state monster.

But these vast and varied treasures are vulnerable to flooding, state officials say.

Large fluorescent yellow dots mark spots on the floor that have flooded, posing a risk to delicate paper records. Some areas have flooded more than once. At one point, the state archives even asked their landlord, the state’s Department of Enterprise Services, to build a tiny dam in a corner of the building’s lowest-level floor.

“These problems have persisted for multiple decades, and these are kind of the patchwork solutions that we’ve been able to implement,” Deputy Secretary of State Randy Bolerjack said during a recent tour of the archives building. “Whereas what we really need is a new home for the collections.”

It’s not just floods: Sewage lines run over some records, the fire suppression system is out of date, and the building’s control systems to manage temperature and humidity — important factors to keep constant when preserving records — are failing.

But a new home is some years, and about $181 million, away. And there’s uncertainty about whether the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees the archives, can get enough money to pay for the project.

Funding issues

In 2019, the Secretary of State’s Office got permission from the Legislature to borrow $119 million, through a mechanism called a certificate of participation, to build a new office that could house all of its divisions, including the archives, the elections division, and the state library.

The idea was the office would use money it expected to bring in to pay back the money borrowed.

You can think of it like a mortgage: You borrow money to buy a house, and use the money you earn at work to pay it off. But rather than a salary, the secretary of state uses revenues from document recording fees — charged by the government to record the transfer of property when you buy a home, for example — to pay the money back.

But the economy had other ideas. In the four years since the secretary of state first got permission, rising construction costs have increased the price tag of the construction to $166 million.

And thanks to higher interest rates, the cost of borrowing is higher. Plus, fewer people are buying homes, and that means fewer document recording fees. So now the secretary of state can only really afford to borrow $76.6 million through the certificate of participation.

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The state is also waiting on the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to approve a plan to conserve habitat on the land in Tumwater where they hope to build the new facility.

The secretary of state is presenting a few financing options to lawmakers.

Right now, the total gap between what the Secretary of State’s Office can pay for and what the total costs of the project are expected to be is about $73 million. That’s because on top of construction costs, it’s expected to cost about $15 million for furniture, moving expenses and IT systems, and those things can’t be paid for with the certificate of participation. But lawmakers did promise $30 million of state bonds to the secretary of state for the project in the 2025-27 budget.

Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, head of the Senate committee overseeing the state’s capital construction budget, said he wants to see what interest rates look like next year. If they go down, that could mean the Secretary of State’s Office could get more than the $76.6 million it could currently get through the certificate of participation.

That could still leave a gap, but the Legislature could help close a smaller funding gap over the course of a couple of budget cycles, Mullet said. But even a $60 million gap is out of range, he said.

Even though the secretary is independently elected, the Legislature has the ultimate say in how state money gets spent.

After the pandemic, the state of Washington has been reevaluating its office footprint. The state may not need as much office space due to the rise of remote work. According to the state, 30% of state employees telework full time. Half work remotely at least three days a week.

But Bolerjack said options are limited for the Secretary of State’s Office to rent from the state. Some of its divisions, like the library, already rent from private landlords. And it does need an office because many of its functions must be done in person — running the state’s elections, for instance.

State library struggles

The struggle to fund the new building comes at a challenging time for another department within the Secretary of State’s Office, the state library.

While the archives maintain a massive repository of government records, the library keeps a collection of books and periodicals and supports access to information more broadly.

The library was initially located in the Pritchard Building, just a short jaunt south of the state Capitol building, but moved to a temporary location — not so temporary now — in Tumwater after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

In early October, the library began closing its doors to visitors on Mondays because it couldn’t fill vacant library jobs thanks to a “historic revenue shortfall.” That’s because document recording fees have declined so steeply.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re in this situation where the economy is doing well, the state budget is doing well, but our library is not doing well because it is tied to this unreliable funding source,” Secretary of State Steve Hobbs said.

He said the library never really recovered the staff lost after budget cuts during the Great Recession.

“If this continues, I’m going to have to lay off people, which I don’t want to do,” Hobbs said. “And this is just a cut upon a cut.”

Why this matters

Outreach Archivist Benjamin Helle points to a trove of records in the archives to show that the policy issues Gov. Dan Evans was working on in the 1970s continue to be relevant: abortion, affirmative action, and migrant farmworker issues, just to name a few.

“The hot issues of today were being discussed in 1973,” Helle said. (Perhaps unlike today, though, Evans received angry letters after he sprouted a beard, which the archives also keeps on hand).

Governors’ records “are extremely valuable” because they document what was happening in state government at the time well, he said.

But the archives don’t just draw policy geeks. The archives are popular with genealogists trying to trace their family history. Some people use the archives to find out more about the history of their house or property.

State archives researchers have been able to help people find their birth parents, and others to find decades-old marriage licenses so they could collect Social Security benefits after a spouse passed away, said State Archivist Heather Hirotaka.

The state archives are important to everyone — they just may not realize it yet, Hirotaka said.

“Every day has a history to it,” she said. “Whether or not it’s history-making or not depends. We’re here to capture what is history-making and to preserve it, and make sure that it’s available and accessible.”