The Pierce County Council is poised to release a portion of the $19.1 million it froze two weeks ago for work related to the Chambers Bay Golf Course, the Scottish links-style course under construction in University Place.
Next week, council members will consider allowing County Executive John Ladenburg to spend $2.1 million from the county sewer fund to pay for an entry road and infrastructure - sewer, water systems and electricity - that will serve the 250-acre waterfront golf course and the rest of the 930-acre site.
They might release another $889,000 for work on a trail that winds through the whole area, known as Chambers Creek Properties.
But the council isn't showing any sign that it's ready to grant Ladenburg's request to spend county sewer funds next year on parks and other projects in and around the controversial golf course.
A draft resolution being circulated this week authorizes the expenditure while affirming the council's position that the $20.8 million bond issue it approved in September was supposed to pay for an entry road and infrastructure for the golf course.
"We believed you were selling us a golf course with power and a road, " Councilman Calvin Goings (D-Puyallup) said, summarizing the view of several council members.
But the measure also acknowledges Ladenburg's position that the road and infrastructure will serve more than just the golf course, making it appropriate to assign some of those costs to the sewer fund.
"The golf course ends up being a relatively low user of the roads and sewers, " Ladenburg said. "You're building out a 900-acre site. Infrastructure ought to be built for the whole thing. The basic infrastructure ought to be the cost of the entire project."
A controversy arose last month when some council members said they were surprised to see Ladenburg's request to tap the sewer fund in the 2006 county budget to help pay for the entry road and golf course infrastructure.
They voted unanimously to freeze spending on those and other projects while they studied the issue.
The freeze didn't affect the golf course construction, which began in October. The 18-hole course is scheduled to open in May 2007.
Since the freeze, Ladenburg has explained that the golf course bond issue includes enough money to build a small entry road and enough infrastructure to service the golf course only.
He said he wants to build a longer road into the property and more robust infrastructure to service the northern portion of the Chambers Creek Properties, which is expected eventually to include beach access, parking, restrooms, a dock and restaurants.
The original master plan for the property envisioned a 50-year timetable for development, but Ladenburg said he wants to speed that along.
Doing the work now will save approximately $500,000 by taking advantage of construction equipment already on site to build the golf course, he said.
The additional road and infrastructure work is already included in the construction contract the county signed with Houston-based course builder Heritage Links, said Brian Ziegler, Ladenburg's public works director.
But the $20.8 million bond issue pays only for construction costs directly related to the golf course and associated "soft costs, " such as design and management, Ziegler said. That's why Ladenburg asked to tap the sewer fund for the other projects.
Ladenburg said he hopes the council will agree to release enough money during the first quarter of next year to at least pay for design work on the frozen projects. That way the projects won't fall behind schedule and end up costing more when they're finally approved.
If council members agree to that, the review isn't a bad thing, Ladenburg said.
"We don't mind further review, " he said. "It will show the benefit of the projects."
Last month, council members questioned whether the Heritage contract followed rules, and they asked a county attorney to examine it.
Council Chairman Shawn Bunney (R-Lake Tapps) said Thursday that it will be hard to say for sure.
Ultimately, it's more important for the council to consider whether the project serves the public's interest, Bunney said.
COUNCIL COULD SELL SOME LAND
In addition to freeing up some sewer money, the resolution to be considered next week would:
- Direct Ladenburg to report to the council if any sewer fund money is used.
- Require that the golf course's "proportionate share" of any sewer money be repaid within five years of the opening of the golf course.
- Allow for the sale or lease of land at the Chambers Creek site in case the golf course fails to generate enough money to pay for itself.
Ladenburg said he opposes selling any of the property. But he said he understands that some council members feel more comfortable if that's an option.
He remains confident the golf course will generate enough money.
"I can't imagine the circumstance where we would sell any part of the property except the bus barn, " Ladenburg said, referring to a small piece of property that's used to park school buses.
Councilman Terry Lee (R-Gig Harbor), one of the sponsors of the proposed resolution, said consideration of a property sale is meant to protect sewer rate payers and the county general fund.
"The last thing I would want to do - but the thing I would be willing to do before raising rates or using the general fund - is lease or sell property, " Lee said. "We're sticking it in our back pocket."
Councilman Goings called a possible property sale "another tool in the tool box" that he hopes is never used.
"It would be a tragedy if we did, " Goings said.
PLAN HINGES ON GOLF REVENUE
The county bought the bulk of the land - the site of a gravel mine - in 1992 so it could expand the Chambers Creek sewage wastewater treatment plant. But it needed only 210 acres for that purpose.
In 1997, the county adopted a master plan to guide development of the property, which now consists of about 930 acres. Although a golf course was part of the plan, it wasn't included in the list of projects envisioned for the first stage of development.
Ladenburg pushed to make it the first project because it could generate revenue to help fund other development at the site. He made it a high-end golf course to take advantage of the waterfront location and to maximize potential profit.
Critics have complained that average residents won't see the benefit of a course catering to the wealthy. Proposed greens fees range from $45 to $150 depending on time of day, the season and whether the golfer lives in Pierce County.
Councilman Dick Muri (R-Steilacoom) was the lone vote in September against the golf course bond, saying the course should not be financed with public money. Muri said he isn't surprised by the recent dust-up, and he opposes unfreezing any projects.
Councilman Roger Bush (R-Graham) said he voted in favor of the bond because he believed it would not use any tax dollars and there were good controls in place. He believes that's still the case, noting that the proposed council resolution sends the message, "We don't need to give any more money at this point."
Councilman Lee, who represents University Place and supports Ladenburg's plan, said he was surprised by the county executive's budget additions. But after a closer look, he said it appears the golf course will be a relatively light user of the entry road and infrastructure.
"My feeling is it isn't as big of a deal as it was made out initially, " Lee said.
"But out of the ashes, we're going to have a more in-depth conversation about everything that's happening there, " he added. "That's not a bad thing."