The Pierce County Council is ready to move ahead with a plan to consolidate 19 local government departments into a new $127 million glass, steel and brick headquarters in Tacoma’s South End.
The Council voted 4-3 Tuesday afternoon to build a nine-story administration building on the site of the former Puget Sound Hospital at 3580 Pacific Ave.
The yes votes were Democrats Connie Ladenburg and Rick Talbert of Tacoma, and Derek Young of Gig Harbor, plus Republican swing vote Joyce McDonald of Puyallup.
The no votes were Republicans Dan Roach of Bonney Lake, Doug Richardson of Lakewood and Jim McCune of Graham.
McDonald said she thinks the county will realize savings from consolidation that will justify the new building’s cost.
“I think we’re leaving and giving the citizens of Pierce County a great administration building that will serve them for years to come,” she said.
Other supporters also favored the building as a means to improve services for residents while potentially trimming long-term capital and operating expenses.
“This is going to be a much more user-friendly facility for the people we serve” than the current model of county programs scattered around Tacoma, Talbert said. He called it a “no-brainer.”
The vote allows Seattle developer Wright Runstad to break ground this spring with a goal of finishing the building in the fall of 2016. The county wants to hit that timeline so it can end leases for properties it rents all over Tacoma.
County Executive Pat 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.
Her proposal gained support from residents who want to see new development near Tacoma’s Lincoln District, as well as from backers of a “one-stop shop” for most county government services.
“I’m excited about this,” McCarthy said at a Council meeting earlier Tuesday. “This is a big thing we’re doing. We’re going to get out of spending millions of dollars a year in leases and really have something to show for it.”
In recent weeks, the project faced opposition on two fronts.
First, a group of downtown advocates criticized McCarthy’s plan, characterizing it as a missed opportunity for Tacoma’s downtown. They noted that the plan will take about 400 county jobs out of the city core.
“The project you’re being asked to approve is seriously flawed,” Kevin Grossman, president of the Hilltop Business Association, said Tuesday. He criticized late changes to the building’s plan and urged the council to reopen debate to consider more locations.
“Give yourself a chance to do the process right,” he said.
A second set of opponents came forward after the county revealed the project’s guaranteed maximum price had gone up because of additional building square footage and parking space. At $127 million, it was nearly double McCarthy’s original estimate of $67 million.
“I don’t want to be in the position of saying ‘I told you so’” if costs continue to swell and the county fails to achieve the projected cost savings, county Assessor-Treasurer Mike Lonergan told the council early Tuesday.
Those arguments gained traction with McCune. He said residents in his suburban and rural district know little about the project and would not benefit from it.
McCune put forward a motion to let residents determine the fate of the building with an initiative-style vote on the November ballot. No one seconded his motion.
“None of this money is being spent in my district or in unincorporated Pierce County, and that’s a shame in itself,” he said.
McCarthy’s proposal would move about 1,100 county employees to the new headquarters. Another roughly 250 employees from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department would also move in.
About 1,000 county employees, mostly in law enforcement and judicial offices, would continue to work downtown in and near the County-City Building.
The 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.
The county would further offset its expenses by charging about $1 million a year in rent to the Health Department.
Roach said the financial plan relies too heavily on reducing payroll. He said building the headquarters binds the county to a 30-year lease but does not guarantee that positions will remain vacant over time.
“We can promise anything until we’re blue in the face,” he said. “There is no guarantee on that piece of paper, that letter of intent, that those positions will never come back.”
County officials contend the expiring leases and salaries for eliminated positions amount to more than $300 million over 25 years. By contrast, the county’s 30-year lease to pay for the new building is expected to cost about $235 million in principal, financing costs and interest.
Tacoma City Councilman Marty Campbell said the County Council made a good decision to reuse the site of the abandoned hospital.
“I want to thank you for looking at the South End and realizing not only the potential of it but also the responsibility you have with the hospital there,” Campbell said. “The fact that you can do something with it and make something greater out of it, we thank you very much.”