Pierce County officials say taxpayers stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars if citizen activists stop – or even just delay – a government headquarters from being built in Tacoma’s South End.
The clock is already ticking down to a March 17 deadline, when the county’s agreement with a Seattle developer lapses and the $127 million project cost must be renegotiated. And because of the superheated Puget Sound commercial construction market, the county says it expects costs may increase significantly.
“The greater the delay, the greater the increase in (the negotiated maximum price) and the greater the overall cost of the Project to the County and its taxpayers,” the county’s budget and finance director, Gary Robinson, said in a Pierce County Superior Court filing this week.
“Further, if undue delay causes too great an increase,” Robinson added, “the Project will no longer be financially viable and must be terminated.”
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The court document marks the first time County Executive Pat McCarthy and her staff have given a public accounting of the financial hit the county would absorb if a ballot referendum challenging the building project is allowed to go forward. McCarthy has not made herself available to News Tribune reporters the last two weeks.
The document also suggests that opponents of the project could succeed at killing it by chewing up time, even if it never goes to a public vote.
The county filed a lawsuit last week that seeks to block Gig Harbor resident Jerry Gibbs from pursuing the referendum, which Gibbs and his supporters hope to put on the November ballot.
Gibbs says officials are trampling on his rights as a citizen established under the county charter, while the lawsuit says decisions about necessary public buildings are reserved to county leaders.
The first hearing on the lawsuit was set for July. Hoping to get a resolution to the standoff as soon as possible, the county on Thursday filed its motion asking for the hearing to be moved up to April 3.
That still would be two weeks after the expiration of the agreement with Seattle developer Wright Runstad, meaning it would have to be renegotiated no matter what.
Gibbs said Friday he hadn’t seen the county’s court filing, but he views it as an attempt to “overwhelm and bully” him.
“I think they’re trying to distract me with all this minutiae so I can’t be out standing on the street corner with a clipboard” gathering signatures, he said.
It won’t work, Gibbs vowed. He received a certified letter Thursday saying the referendum ballot title had been approved, and he said he plans to go to print with his petitions next week. He’s working on recruiting “an army” of people to gather signatures and raise campaign funds.
McCarthy has been pushing to consolidate county administrative offices as a long-term cost-savings move since 2013, and the County Council approved her plan in a 4-3 vote last month.
The cost of the nine-story building at 3580 Pacific Ave. is scheduled to reach an estimated $235 million when principal, financing costs and interest are factored in over 30 years.
But that number “assumes a very favorable interest rate,” Robinson said in the court filing, and it would climb significantly if the project were postponed.
Annual debt payments would grow by an estimated $310,000 a year if the project is held up until May, Robinson wrote, and an estimated $530,000 a year if the delays stretch to the end of the year.
If the project is scrapped entirely, he said, the losses will still pile up, including:
• A $1 million loan for preliminary design work on the building. It would have to be repaid from the county general fund, road fund, and planning and land services fund, “thereby reducing service delivery for those programs.”
• An unspecified sum to renegotiate 15 leases for office space scattered around the county. McCarthy had hoped to vacate those offices by the end of 2016. If the landlords won’t extend those leases, the county would have to pay relocation costs.
“The room for error regarding this aspect of the Project is incredibly small and has potentially huge negative financial implications for the County,” Robinson said.
• An unspecified sum to make repairs to deteriorating county-owned buildings that officials had also hoped to vacate, including the Pierce County Annex and the Tacoma/Pierce County Health Department.
Gibbs said the county’s dire financial projections won’t deter him from his mission.
“They can sue, they can throw up all these numbers, but I just feel the people deserve a voice on all this,” he said. “I am sorry this is being disruptive to them, but I’m just exercising my rights and I’d like to see the people vote.”
Gibbs and his allies will attend the County Council meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday to support an emergency resolution by Council Chairman Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake. Roach wants the county prosecutor’s office to drop the lawsuit and let the referendum proceed.
The group also plans to rally outside the County-City Building downtown at 2 p.m.