Politics & Government

Don't confuse pricey building projects, Pierce County Council cautions

It’s going to be a brand-new building, paid for by Pierce County taxpayers — but it’s not the same project that sparked controversy in late February and early March.

County leaders want to make sure voters understand that.

Leaders of South Sound 911, the county’s nerve center for emergency dispatch services and record-keeping, want to move forward with plans to build a public safety communications center in Fircrest.

The project, estimated to cost $62 million, is still in the early stages of planning and design. Voters approved the idea in 2011, and passed a 0.1 of 1 percent sales tax increase to pay for it.

To move forward, South Sound 911 needs to spend $1.2 million of that money, which requires approval from the County Council. The county is one of the lead agencies in the South Sound 911 consortium.

For county Executive Pat McCarthy, the timing is less than ideal. In late February, the council approved a plan to build a general services building for $127 million on Pacific Avenue.

The narrow 4-3 vote prompted an activist to file a referendum petition that could unravel the decision, if backers gather sufficient signatures, if voters approve and if the idea of the referendum passes legal muster.

Those questions still float behind the general services project.

McCarthy doesn’t want to step into a similar minefield on the South Sound 911 center.

“What I don’t want are any missteps,” she told County Council members at a Monday study session. “It’s the public engagement piece that became an issue.”

Council members haven’t voted yet — they likely won’t until next month — but the key dissenters on the general services building issue suggested they’re unlikely to oppose the new public safety complex.

“For me, it’s a whole different ballgame,” Councilman Jim McCune said. “It has come from the voters. I’m not gonna delay it. I would be in favor of moving forward with it.”

Procedurally, the South Sound 911 project differs from the general services building in a fundamental way: Voters approved it and the taxes to pay for it.

In public meetings last year, South Sound leaders discussed proposed sites for the facility, narrowed the list of candidates and submitted a final plan.

“The public process, in my opinion, started a number of years ago,” said Andrew Neiditz, the agency’s executive director. “Public actions were taken. The election was specific about financing over a 25-year tax increase.”

As proposed, the project would construct a “hybrid campus” of two buildings on a 6-acre site at 2119 Mildred St. W., not far from Tacoma Community College. A second site at 6700 Adams St. in Tacoma is the other option.

As proposed, the site plan envisions a 55,000-square-foot building that would house police and fire communications services. A second building, proposed at 25,000 square feet, would house administrative services, record-keeping and a public counter.

Financing is where the County Council comes in.

South Sound 911 is a consortium of local governments, led by Pierce County and Tacoma. Other members: the cities of Lakewood, Fife and Puyallup and West Pierce Fire and Rescue.

To pay for the project, South Sound 911 must piggyback on the county’s credit, using the same financing mechanism the county is relying on for the general services building.

The agency needs council approval, and a supplemental budget amendment, that would authorize $1.2 million in spending: $900,000 for design and an agreement with the selected developer, and $300,000 for review and legal oversight.

South Sound 911 leaders say they face a November deadline to tie up those loose ends, and they’re asking for a council vote by April 26 to preserve the guaranteed maximum price for the project.

During Monday’s study session, McCarthy and other council members discussed issues of public perception, and the danger of leaving the impression that the project has been rushed through without public input.

She recommended hosting meetings in each council district.

“When voters voted for this, they knew we wanted to consolidate everything, but we didn’t have the specifics of what this would look like,” she said.

Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg supported that idea, with the caution that voters need to know the project comes from public safety agencies, not Pierce County government.

“I support a road show,” she said. “The site you’re looking at is in my district — so I’m willing to have the first one.”

Councilman Derek Young was less enthusiastic. He suggested more public outreach and delaying any fiscal decisions for a year.

“This is literally the first I’ve heard of it, which tells me that the public outreach so far has not been great,” he said. “I guess at this point I’m a pretty emphatic no. You couldn’t possibly be coming at a worse time — this county can’t afford another blow to its credibility.”

Councilman Rick Talbert worried that the public outreach idea could create more confusion rather than less, leaving voters with the impression that proposed sites and design are still up for debate when those decisions have been made in other public settings.

Councilman Dan Roach, a dissenter on the general services building vote, said public process is fine, as long as the message is clear.

“You go out and say you’re honoring the vote of the people,” he said. “We are financing it — but it needs to feel like it’s a South Sound 911 building and presentation.”

Roach also asked whether the South Sound 911 proposal factored in the prospect of another referendum.

The answer was no.