Early election results Tuesday showed Pierce County voters strongly rejecting a proposal for a new county general services building.
If the trend holds, it could mark the beginning of the end for the controversial $127 million headquarters.
The project, which has an estimated price tag of more than $230 million when financing is included, would consolidate several county offices into one building at 3850 Pacific Ave. S., the county-owned site of the old Puget Sound Hospital.
County Executive Pat McCarthy and other officials say the savings over time from consolidating offices, including some now occupying leased space, would help offset project costs. About 1,000 county employees, mostly in law enforcement and judicial offices, would continue to work downtown in and near the County-City Building.
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Though unsurprised by the early returns, McCarthy stressed that Tuesday’s results weren’t final and many more ballots have yet to be tallied.
“I will say that I’m encouraged by the number of people who saw through the negativity and saw the benefits of this building,” she said.
Tuesday was just the first of two public votes on the issue, and voter turnout was low at about 16 percent. More voters are bound to weigh in this fall on a second, legally binding decision on the building project.
That November referendum is the result of an effort led by Gig Harbor resident Jerry Gibbs, who wants voters to weigh in on the building proposal approved by the Pierce County Council, 4-3, in February. Gibbs and his supporters gathered 24,493 valid signatures to put the referendum on the general election ballot.
In the face of Gibbs’ campaign, the council voted, 4-3, in April to call for Tuesday’s advisory vote.
Gibbs said Tuesday’s results reinforce residents’ concerns about the building proposal.
“The voters have shown that they want to vote on this issue and they’ve got a lot of questions,” he said.
Now, he added, the focus will shift to educating general election voters about the “purposely deceptive language” they face on the Nov. 3 ballot. Voters will have to mark “yes” to say no to the building project.
“Tonight, we start our vote-yes campaign,” Gibbs said.
Some have suggested the project was doomed since the November measure was placed on the ballot.
In a News Tribune editorial board meeting in June, McCarthy said that if the issue went to voters, the county would likely lose the guaranteed maximum price it negotiated last winter with the building developer.
Deputy County Executive Kevin Phelps told the editorial board it would be the “death knell of the project” if the referendum delayed the county from acting until the end of the year.
But after Gibbs’ proposal qualified for the ballot last month, McCarthy issued a statement saying she hadn’t given up on the project she started two years ago.
She said Tuesday that she isn’t worried about the binding vote in November.
“We have work to do to educate the voters. There is so much misinformation out there,” she said. “I’m going to stay positive.”
The referendum survived a legal challenge in May, when a Superior Court judge ruled that residents Leslie Young and Anthony Miller couldn’t sue Gibbs.
The county itself filed suit to stop Gibbs but withdrew the action under political pressure.
County Council Chairman Dan Roach has opposed the proposed building and the attempts at blocking the referendum.
Roach said he was not surprised by the early results Tuesday.
“I think there are a lot of people who have a lot of concern,” he said.