Elections

Last word: Referendum to determine fate of $127 million Pierce County headquarters

This rendering shows the proposed Pierce County administration building.
This rendering shows the proposed Pierce County administration building. Courtesy

What was previously electoral advice will soon rise to an order as voters prepare to weigh in with force Nov. 3 on Pierce County’s proposed general services building.

The nine-story, 330,000-square-foot building would condense county services into one $127 million headquarters at 3580 Pacific Ave. S., the county-owned site of the old Puget Sound Hospital in Tacoma’s South End.

Its estimated cost would total more than $230 million when financing is included.

Voters opposed the project in a nonbinding advisory vote in August.

This time, they will vote on a referendum in the general election that seeks to stop it for good. And the buck stops there, said Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy.

“I’m not going to challenge the final vote of the people,” she told The News Tribune.

That means the county plans to give voters the last word following months of controversy that included a divided County Council and various legal battles, which pitted voters against other voters and government against the people it represents.

COMPETING LANGUAGE

Adding to the already convoluted process, opponents and supporters alike are working to educate people about how their votes are likely to change due to language on the new ballot measure.

It will ask voters if they believe the ordinance that authorized financing and construction of the building should be repealed. In other words, opponents of the proposal would mark “yes” to reject it. Supporters of the project would mark “no.”

That’s the opposite of August’s advisory vote, which the County Council authorized in April to gauge public opinion on the issue.

It asked voters if Pierce County should proceed with financing and construction of the proposed building. In that election, supporters voted “yes” and opponents marked “no.” At that time, voters rejected the building proposal in the primary by 55 percent.

I’m not going to challenge the final vote of the people.

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy

Gig Harbor resident Jerry Gibbs spearheaded the upcoming referendum effort. Gibbs and his supporters gathered 24,493 valid signatures to put the measure on the ballot after the Pierce County Council approved the project, 4-3, in February.

Gibbs said he has been working to educate general election voters amid worries that the way the referendum is posed may confuse them.

OPPONENTS AND SUPPORTERS SPEAK

Gibbs reiterated his group’s opposition to the project in a presentation to the Rotary Club of Tacoma earlier this month. He joined the county executive for a two-part information session.

Gibbs told the crowd that his group “filed the referendum for the same reason we opposed this project:” a lack of transparency.

The county didn’t consider other low-cost options for the project, he added.

“The funding plan, we feel, is flawed,” Gibbs said. “This building is not a priority at this time.”

He also denounced moving services from downtown Tacoma to the new location, noting that removing services from the county’s “living room” would have a negative impact on the city’s economy.

“This building seems to serve more the county than it does the taxpayer,” Gibbs said. “We’re asking for the reset button to be hit on this project.”

We’re asking for the reset button to be hit on this project.

Jerry Gibbs, leader of referendum effort

McCarthy has fought to justify and garner support for the project. It wasn’t planned overnight, she told the Rotary crowd.

“Pat McCarthy wasn’t sitting at her desk one day saying she wants a shiny new building,” she said, stressing that there have been more than 50 presentations, studies and discussions related to the issue since 2009.

She reiterated that 19 county divisions scattered over 14 locations, including eight leased spaces, would condense into one convenient location should the project move forward.

$153 million Cost for county’s eight currently leased locations over 30 years

“We are in more leased spaced than owned,” she said of the current operations. “This is a very inefficient and expensive model for operations. Frankly, folks, it’s not very customer-service friendly.”

McCarthy added that the defunct Puget Sound Hospital is already going to be a financial burden.

“The hospital must be demolished whether we build a new building or not,” she said.

McCarthy said that the status quo would cost the county an estimated $240 million. That figure includes required facility upgrades and lease costs over 30 years, county spokesman Ron Klein said.

Alternatively, the proposed “one-stop shopping” for county services would save money — an estimated $400,000 in the first year and about $132 million over 30 years — after accounting for the cost of the building. The savings would come from shedding the leases and facility upgrades and from eliminating redundant positions that exist because county operations are spread over so many locations.

“The citizens of Pierce County would have something to show for their investment,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy also touted the location for its proximity to downtown and Interstate 5, its capacity for parking and its easy access to public transit.

She also stressed that the “low-risk” public-private funding model would avoid new taxes, tax increases or fee increases. The lease-to-own financing would result in county ownership after 30 years.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department would pay the county $1 million per year in rent if the proposal is approved.

The County-City Building, where many county services are currently located, would remain a law enforcement and criminal justice center occupied by about 900 county employees.

CHANGING CONVERSATION

Some previously suggested the project was doomed because 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, McCarthy issued a statement saying she hadn’t given up on the project she started two years ago.

McCarthy recently told The News Tribune that the developer has remained committed despite the delay.

“The developer has stayed strong and is allowing this process to work through this final conclusion,” she said. “This is something we didn’t know (in June). The conversation has changed.”

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.

McCarthy acknowledged that large-scale investments such as the proposed headquarters are often unpopular with voters.

But she stressed that other investments that weren’t initially popular in Pierce County — such as the second Narrows Bridge, Sound Transit’s Link light rail and Chambers Bay golf course — eventually proved their worth.

“I don’t even want to guess what the next steps will be,” she said of the November vote. “We want to wait and let the process play out.”

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682

kari.plog@thenewstribune.com

@KariPlog

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