The Pierce County Council voted again Tuesday to let voters take an advisory swing at a proposed new county headquarters, estimated to cost as much as $230 million.
The decision, passed by a 4-3 margin after a lengthy debate, sets an election for Aug. 4. It would have no legal force; it wouldn’t undo the council’s earlier decision to proceed with the fiscal and legal steps to build the building.
Its political effect is another matter, at least according to vocal opponents of the project. Almost 30 people lined up to support the advisory ballot proposal, including state initiative czar Tim Eyman, who warned council members that opposing a vote would come back to haunt them.
“What these people are asking for is wait a month or two,” Eyman said. “Where’s the fire?”
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Council members decided in February to move forward with plans to build the headquarters at 3580 Pacific Ave., the site of the old Puget Sound Hospital. The projected cost for the building was $127 million at that point. More recent estimates pushed the number to $142 million. Tuesday, Councilman Derek Young, who voted for the building proposal, said total costs, including financing, could reach $230 million.
A backlash followed the council’s February vote. Gig Harbor resident Jerry Gibbs proposed a referendum and started collecting signatures. County leaders subsequently sued Gibbs, saying the referendum was illegal. They withdrew the suit after bruising political fallout. A pair of Tacoma residents, Leslie Young and Anthony Miller, re-filed the suit, which is still active.
So is Gibbs, who told council members Tuesday that he’s collected about 5,000 signatures so far. His referendum needs about 25,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot — if it survives a court challenge next month.
Those circumstances led Council Chairman Dan Roach, who voted against the building proposal in February, to propose the ordinance seeking the advisory ballot. The council took a preliminary vote on his ordinance a week ago, and it also passed 4-3.
On Tuesday, a long procession of residents backed the idea. Only one citizen — Miller — opposed the ordinance.
County Executive Pat McCarthy has said she will move forward with the fiscal and legal steps to begin the financing of the project, including selling bonds, regardless of Tuesday’s decision. McCarthy said the council’s original vote to move ahead with the building obligates her to take those steps.
Gibbs said moving ahead won’t be as easy as it seems for the county if the advisory vote yields the result he expects.
“What do you do then, after you’ve already started the shovels up there?” he asked. “How can you look at the voters?”
Eyman added a similar dig.
“Any vote against this building is gonna stop it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an advisory ballot.”
The next stage of the debate: May 18 in Pierce County Superior Court, where a visiting judge will hear arguments about the legality of Gibbs’ referendum. County leaders, including Young, believe that if the referendum survives, that could be a more substantive roadblock to the project.
“I’m gonna respect whatever the judge says,” Young said.