With a make-or-break vote by the Pierce County Council set for next month, a group of downtown Tacoma advocates wants county leaders to slow down a plan to consolidate most government services in a new $90 million building on the site of the former Puget Sound Hospital.
Opponents say they like the idea of bringing county services under one roof and they don’t oppose the building design. But they want government officials to consider traditional downtown locations instead of at the former hospital near Tacoma’s Lincoln neighborhood.
They fear a loss of jobs downtown, and they say the proposed location two miles from the County-City Building would isolate the bulk of the county workforce from investments in public transportation, such as Tacoma’s light rail.
“This is just not long-term thinking. We’re thinking small,” said Tacoma architect Jim Merritt, a member of a group of about two dozen people called Pierce County Together, which was formed to challenge the building’s planned location.
The recent concerns have compelled three County Council members to host a town hall for residents next week to learn more about the plan.
The council is scheduled to vote Feb. 3 and Feb. 10 on whether to sign a lease that would allow construction on the nine-story structure of steel, glass and brick to begin this year. It would open in late 2016.
“It’s apparent that some folks feel there’s still a need for more information, and I want to make sure those opportunities are available,” said Councilman Rick Talbert, who organized the Jan. 22 forum with council members Connie Ladenburg and Derek Young. All are Democrats whose districts include parts of Tacoma.
All three council members say they support the consolidation plan, viewing it as a way to save money over time by ending costly leases at far-flung properties.
“You see this has a $90 million cost,” Young said. “What you don’t realize is that doing nothing isn’t free.”
The county estimates it would spent at least $40 million more on leases and maintenance over 25 years than it would in paying for the proposed building. The County-City Building would remain, but would be converted into a regional justice center.
The proposed administration building would hold about 1,300 employees who are currently working at the Pierce County annex near the Tacoma Mall on South 35th Street, at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and in several leased offices downtown.
Another 1,000 county employees, mostly in law enforcement and judicial offices, would continue to work downtown in and near the City-County Building.
Pierce County Chief Executive Pat McCarthy said about 400 employees would move from downtown offices to the new building if the council approves the plan.
McCarthy began looking at the former hospital site in 2013 when a committee of county officials concluded that local government could save money and provide better services to residents by consolidating.
The county already owned the land at 3580 Pacific Avenue, and officials concluded it would be too expensive to consolidate offices downtown because the county would have to build parking structures, county spokesman Hunter George said.
“There were two drivers,” McCarthy said. “Is this an initiative that ultimately will save the county money over time? The answer was overwhelmingly yes. And the second thing was, can we provide a more efficient model for the delivery of services? The answer was yes.
“If those aren’t two good goals for us as county leaders, I don’t know what are,” she said.
Merritt and others in his group argue that county officials have not done enough to seek public input. They would have preferred that the county host open meetings early on to ask for opinions about what residents would like to see in a major public building that would serve residents for decades.
“What we’re seeing here is a project that really had no public involvement until the decisions had been made,” said Merritt, a former candidate for mayor.
The purpose of next week’s town hall is for members of the public to hear about building plans, not to share their own ideas.
“The idea of coming to a meeting next week to sell what they’ve already decided is not acceptable,” Merritt said.
County officials point out they have discussed the proposal at 16 or more public meetings since September 2013. Several of the meetings — including decisions on appointing a developer and choosing a design — were covered by The News Tribune.
They also like the prospect of bringing jobs to the Lincoln District, which they say is an extension of downtown.
Ladenburg said the county could have done a better job notifying the public about the proposal and seeking feedback on its goals.
Still, she supports the plan and hopes next week’s town hall will help settle the recent debate.
“This is an opportunity for the public to come and learn what we’re doing,” she said.