For a moment, I thought describing Pierce County’s ongoing effort to finance and build a new $127 million general services building as a “fiasco” might be uncalled for.
Then I Googled the word.
Fiasco: “A thing that is a complete failure, especially in a ludicrous or humiliating way.”
On second thought, that sounds about right.
When it comes to displays of complete ineptitude, this saga is a shining example. It’s had everything you could want from an epic governmental failure.
And it’s not over yet!
This debacle’s humble beginnings stretch back to the summer of 2013, when a Pierce County study concluded that local government agencies could save significant cash by consolidating operations into one building. These were simpler times.
Much has transpired since then. And very little of it has gone well for the county. The biggest problem is the public process involved in the general services building debate has lacked both the public and any sort of process.
While public apathy surely played a part, by the time many Pierce County citizens caught wind of it, the building had been designed, and its site — at 3580 Pacific Ave. near the Lincoln District in Tacoma’s South End — had been selected. The scope of the project also grew with the inclusion of the Health Department, causing the price tag to double along the way.
The fact that it’s the right location for the new building, a potential game changer for one of Tacoma’s historically underserved neighborhoods, and a sensible project that stands to save taxpayers significant money has sadly ceased to matter. The fact that consolidating 19 county departments, currently operating out of 14 aging locations, is kind of a no-brainer becomes a footnote.
What matters is people feel like the project is a predetermined outcome they had no say in.
“Yes, we could have (had a better public process),” says County Executive Pat McCarthy, who has championed the project. While McCarthy defends the outreach efforts the county did undertake, she admits the public process could have been more robust and that a better effort might have relieved “some of the anxieties” in citizens.
“I would probably say, ‘Yep, if I had to do it over, I would have done more on the front end.”
That’s the painful lesson here. Hopefully we learn from it.
In the meantime, we’ve got a major mess on our hands.
There’s Gig Harbor resident Jerry Gibbs, who filed a citizen referendum in February to put the project to a public vote. Gibbs is probably gathering signatures to get the referendum on the ballot as you read this. A May 18 hearing in Pierce County Superior Court, instigated by private citizens Leslie Young and Anthony Miller, may foil his plans. There’s a good chance a judge will decide the County Council's vote to sign off on the project back in February isn’t subject to the referendum process.
Speaking of the County Council, earlier this week Chairman Dan Roach, who is staunchly against the project, called for an advisory vote of the public in the August primary. He shepherded through the nonbinding resolution by a 4-3 vote that is awaiting final approval next week.
“I want to make sure, no matter what happens, that the citizens will at least be able to chime in,” Roach says.
That’s a fantastic idea. The only problem is it’s at least two years too late.
If the Gibbs referendum goes down in court, like many expect, McCarthy has pledged to move forward with the project, including the selling of bonds. Roach, who wants to slow things down, is applying political pressure to prevent that, but the county executive says she won’t relent. Delays are costly and jeopardize the project, McCarthy maintains.
“It is a law,” she says of the approved building. “I’m going to honor it.”
Translation: It’s likely citizens will be voting on a project that, by August, will already be well underway. At that point there will be almost no turning back.
That’s bad government.
“I’m having trouble picturing how we explain that to the public,” says first-year Pierce County Councilmember Derek Young, who voted in favor of the county building in February as one of his first acts in office.
Young is right to be concerned about having to explain to voters that their votes will be meaningless. If officials wanted to give the electorate a say, that’s something they should have been thinking about a long, long time ago.
Instead, by failing to communicate with constituents on this project for the last two years, the county has effectively poisoned a worthy endeavor.