Community activists have filed a referendum proposal with the Pierce County auditor in the hope that voters will have a chance to stop construction of a new county administration building in Tacoma’s South End.
To put a measure on the November ballot, the group would have to gather at least 24,427 valid signatures in the next 120 days.
Citizens for Responsible Spending filed the referendum proposal Monday. Gig Harbor resident Jerry Gibbs, who represents the group, described the grassroots committee as “retired guys with too much time on our hands.”
But Gibbs and his supporters have proven themselves a force to be reckoned with in Gig Harbor. Formerly called Citizens for Responsible School Spending, the group in recent years has targeted Peninsula School District spending requests, which ultimately lost on the ballot.
Members decided to broaden their reach this year to look at “everything that has taxing authority over us,” Gibbs said. That includes Pierce County and junior taxing districts.
The County Council voted 4-3 last week to move forward with building the $127 million county headquarters on the site of the former Puget Sound Hospital at 3580 Pacific Ave.
The project will be on a tight timeline if hundreds of county employees are going to move out of scattered buildings with expiring leases and move into the new headquarters by the end of next year.
Representatives of County Executive Pat McCarthy declined to talk to a reporter Wednesday about whether the referendum would delay the spring 2015 groundbreaking and fall 2016 opening of the administration building.
Nor would they say whether the referendum could change the final cost negotiated with Seattle developer Wright Runstad — a cost that is already nearly double McCarthy’s initial estimate of $67 million.
Pierce County Council Chairman Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, said Wednesday there are no financial guarantees after March.
Gibbs said he wouldn’t be surprised if the county tries to stop his group’s referendum in its tracks.
“I fear that the county is going to do anything in their power to stop anyone or a group from exercising what they feel are their rights under the county charter,” he said. “I don’t go away easily. I hope that the county will treat me fairly.”
Gibbs said the financing plan for the new administration building is weak. His group is worried that property taxes will go up if the county’s plan fails.
County Councilman Doug Richardson said the county can’t increase property taxes more than 1 percent annually without a public vote, and he said it’s unlikely officials would ask voters to do that for the administration building.
Richardson, a Lakewood Republican, voted against the building.
The financing plan hinges in part on eliminating 38 county government positions that would save about $4.2 million a year in personnel expenses, helping offset the cost of what would be a roughly $8 million yearly lease for the new headquarters.
McCarthy’s office contends the expiring leases and salaries for eliminated positions would save more than $300 million over 25 years, which is more than enough to cover the cost of the 30-year lease on the new building. That cost rises to an estimated $235 million when principal, financing costs and interest are factored in.
The county would further offset its expenses by charging about $1 million a year in rent to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
McCarthy has advocated for a new administration building since the summer of 2013, when a county study concluded local government agencies could save money over time by consolidating.
Roach, however, says the plan relies too heavily on reducing payroll. There is no guarantee eliminated positions will remain vacant over time, he said.
On Wednesday, he said hearing from voters could kill the building, or it could result in a project that is “more refined.”
Councilman Jim McCune, R-Graham, favors the idea of a public vote on the headquarters project. Before last week’s divided vote of the council, he proposed an initiative-style measure to give the public a chance to be heard. His motion failed to get a second.
“This is a very expensive building and it is going to basically serve the public,” McCune said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It should be vetted through the public.”