The Pierce County Council’s decision Tuesday on whether the county should build a $126 million headquarters building could be close, and it could go either way.
In recent weeks, the council’s three Democrats have at different public meetings expressed support for a project that’s been in the works for nearly two years.
They favor the plan because they believe it will improve services for residents by bringing dozens of programs and employees under one roof while helping save taxpayers’ money over time by slimming the government payroll and ending leases.
But the council’s four Republicans have not tipped their hands about how they’ll vote on the proposal by County Executive Pat McCarthy, a Democrat.
Since she was first elected in 2008, McCarthy has advocated for a “one-stop” county government center. She thinks she’s found it in her plan to build a nine-story structure of steel, glass and brick on the site of the former Puget Sound Hospital, and finance it over three decades.
At a County Council retreat Friday, Republican members Dan Roach of Bonney Lake and Joyce McDonald of Puyallup asked pointed questions about the financing plans.
Another Republican, Doug Richardson of Lakewood, noted the county’s projections for budget savings over 30 years are difficult to test.
“In 30 years, we could be paying a lease on rubble,” he said, jokingly.
The fourth Republican, Jim McCune of Graham, has not signaled which way he plans to vote.
The council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the proposal for the site at 3580 Pacific Ave. near Tacoma’s Lincoln District, about 2 miles from the County-City Building downtown.
County leaders have been developing plans for an administrative building since the summer of 2013, when they concluded in a study that they could save money and improve services by doing so.
They favored the former hospital site because the county owned the land, and it gave them an opportunity to rebuild on what they called an “eyesore” of the abandoned hospital.
They also determined it would be less expensive to set up parking spaces for 1,300 employees in the South End than in Tacoma’s traditional downtown core, which had been considered in a past effort to consolidate county services.
The county initially estimated the project would cost about $70 million. Since then, plans swelled to include space for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and a three-story parking garage.
The Health Department is expected to be a rent-paying tenant, covering the cost of building space for the agency.
But the $17.5 million price tag for the parking garage is causing McDonald to hold back from endorsing the proposal before Tuesday’s vote, she said Friday after the council retreat.
The Health Department chose to join the project in August, opting to consolidate with county government rather than pay for potentially expensive improvements to its independent headquarters at 3629 South D Street.
County leaders did not reveal the full cost of the building until this month when they finalized a guaranteed price with Seattle developer Wright Runstad. The county anticipates billing the Health Department about $1 million a year to use the building.
Knowing the full cost, The Health Department is still on board, business manager Christopher Shuler said in an interview Friday.
Shuler said the agency does not expect to cut programs or lay off employees to pay for the space it would rent. He said the Health Department may be able to reduce staff by letting some open positions go unfilled.
“We’re really excited about being located with the county and being able to provide services alongside the county,” he said.
The Health Department is partly funded by Pierce County. Its 13-member board includes McCarthy; the three County Council Democrats who support the proposed building (Connie Ladenburg and Rick Talbert of Tacoma, and Derek Young of Gig Harbor); and Tacoma City Council members who also have endorsed the project.
If the new headquarters is approved, the county would aim to move there in the fall of 2016. Doing so would allow it to save roughly $3.2 million a year in scattered leases that it could terminate.
The county also could save about $4 million a year in payroll by eliminating 38 positions that departments think they won’t need if they consolidate in a single building.
“The job reductions are going to be critical” for the building to save money for local government, said county budget analyst Paul Bocchi.
He said the county should be paying less on its lease for the new building within seven years than it spends today on its rental agreements and on the salaries proposed for elimination.
Roach, the council chairman, said he tested the financing proposal by sending it two local business executives, Ray Tennison of Simpson Investment Company and Toby Murray of Murray-Pacific Corporation.
Both agreed the proposal is “compelling” because of its promise to cut spending while getting out of outdated rental properties.
The risk, they noted, is that county departments will fail to reduce staff.
“Often, promised staff reductions, when they come time to implement, are avoided,” the executives wrote this month.