Elections

Pierce County voters strongly rejecting proposed $127 million headquarters

Supporters of a campaign against the proposed Pierce County general services building cheer early results that showed the referendum winning by a wide margin Tuesday. At left in foreground is Randy Boss, a Charter Review Commission candidate, and Jim Merritt.
Supporters of a campaign against the proposed Pierce County general services building cheer early results that showed the referendum winning by a wide margin Tuesday. At left in foreground is Randy Boss, a Charter Review Commission candidate, and Jim Merritt. Staff photographer

Early general election returns pointed to the death of Pierce County’s proposed headquarters with a strong majority of voters rejecting it Tuesday night.

The results punctuated what voters already told Pierce County in the primary election: Don’t build the $127 million general services building.

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

The county says its estimated cost would total more than $230 million when financing is included.

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

“I think that the people of Pierce County have spoken,” said Gig Harbor resident Jerry Gibbs, who spearheaded Tuesday’s referendum effort. “They rejected this idea because every part of the plan was fatally flawed. Now, our leaders have to listen to the people.”

Gibbs and his supporters say those flaws include the proposed financing, location and designs, the result of a process they say lacked transparency. The county also failed to explore other low-cost options, Gibbs has said, while he and other opponents have criticized the county for planning to move its main offices out of downtown Tacoma.

“We’re wanting to go back to the drawing board on an idea that went wrong,” Gibbs said, adding that he would support consolidation if done right.

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy has maintained the project would consolidate 19 county divisions scattered over 14 locations, including eight leased spaces, into one convenient location that the county would eventually own without raising fees or taxes.

She calls it a long-term investment that would save money — an estimated $400,000 in the first year and about $132 million over 30 years.

McCarthy said Tuesday night that it’s disingenuous for Gibbs to say he supports consolidation when his group worked to stop the best option for doing so. Still, she said she accepts the message delivered on Election Day.

“The majority of the voters have made it clear that the general services building is not something they want county government to pursue,” McCarthy said. “I respect their wishes.”

Gibbs and his supporters gathered 24,493 valid signatures to put the referendum on the ballot after the County Council approved the project, 4-3, in February.

Gibbs said he worked to educate general election voters amid worries that the measure’s language may confuse them.

The advisory vote on the primary election ballot asked voters to say “yes” to support the building project and “no” to oppose it. In contrast, Tuesday’s binding referendum asked voters to say “yes” to reject the proposal and “no” to give the project the green light.

Despite the reversal in language, Tuesday’s results appeared consistent with the outcome in the primary.

McCarthy said the county doesn’t plan to restart the project from scratch, but she said she remains committed to working for cost-effective county services in her remaining 14 months in office.

“It’s disappointing,” she said, “but tomorrow’s another day.”

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682

kari.plog@thenewstribune.com

@KariPlog

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