County offices too expensive? Compared to what?

We wish someone involved in the fight against a new Pierce County office tower would answer a question: What’s the alternative?

The general services building, a nine-story affair, would occupy the Lincoln District site where the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department headquarters now stands. It would consolidate county operations that are currently spread across Tacoma in leased spaces.

When finance costs are included — which is like including all interest paid over the lifetime of a mortgage — the structure would cost $236 million. It’s a lease-to-own deal: After 30 years, the public would assume full ownership of the building. The price has gone up considerably since planning started, partly because the county decided to expand the building to create room for the Health Department.

Let’s call the office tower Plan A. If opponents succeed in blocking it with a referendum this fall, the taxpayers will save $236 million, right?

Wrong. One of Plan A’s purposes was to save taxpayer money. Doing nothing could cost a lot more than $236 million. Here’s why:

As all renters know, leases rise. Add in a realistic 3 percent annual increase, and the cost of the county’s leases might exceed $130 million over the next 30 years.

Catching up on basic deferred maintenance at the 1960s-vintage Annex would cost $10 million, the county staff figures. Operating and maintaining it for another 30 years could cost more than $35 million.

There are other expected costs under Do Nothing and other savings under Plan A. Between the costs and the savings, County Executive Pat McCarthy’s office estimates that Do Nothing would cost upwards of $300 million.

For the sake of argument, let’s say this is wildly overstated. But even if the county administration were exaggerating the cost of Do Nothing by tens of millions of dollars, Plan A would still be a better deal. That’s because, after 30 years, the county will own the office tower outright. The Do Nothing Plan keeps the county beholden to landlords.

It may be that there’s a Plan B that beats the office tower proposal. But the opponents of the building — including three County Council members who are trying to sabotage it — aren’t offering one. Instead, they’re relying on the sticker shock of that $236 million to spook citizens.

Maybe there’s a Plan B that wouldn’t saddle taxpayers with the costs of the status quo. If so, those three councilmembers should tell the public what they have in mind.