Opinion Columns & Blogs

New building serves the whole county, not just Tacoma

After discussions at more than 30 public meetings, I am preparing to ask the Pierce County Council to consolidate the county's general government services into one new building.

A few critics are grasping for a way to stop the project. They can't argue with the merits – we're saving millions of dollars and vastly improving customer service – so they're criticizing the process. Here are the facts:

Some want to make this a conversation about one part of Tacoma, but the fact is 76 percent of the 821,000 people served by Pierce County live outside of the city. Currently, our customers are sent all around Tacoma to get business and marriage licenses, building permits, and birth and death records; to pay county bills; and to interact with Public Works divisions or the County Council and my office.

The county's general government services are spread among the aging Pierce County Annex (a 1960s-era discount store behind Costco), two leased office buildings behind the mall, and the downtown campus (including leased spaces nearby). All told, the county leases nearly 150,000 square feet of commercial office space in eight locations.

Under my proposal, the county would get out of those costly leases and bring most of general government services into one easy-to-access building. We could eliminate at least two dozen redundant positions because of better efficiencies (mostly through attrition), saving more than $2 million a year. This project makes great business sense.

It will take more than 300,000 square feet of office space to accommodate all of those county services, plus the independent Health Department. Building it downtown would add well over $20 million – and probably closer to $30 million – to the total cost for land acquisition and the construction of an office tower. It's why previous attempts to consolidate county services downtown have failed.

Instead, the county already owns a nine-acre campus just up the hill from downtown that houses an old mental hospital that closed years ago. The site is already zoned for the commercial office use we propose. It's located right on Pacific Avenue, a commercial corridor that offers easy access to downtown, transit, Interstate 5 and state Route 7, which is convenient for all those county residents who use our services.

Despite what critics want you to believe, Pierce County is committed to downtown. We would fully occupy all of our owned buildings on the downtown campus, housing 1,000 employees. We would still be the single largest employer in the downtown business district.

This week, I will present to the County Council a proposal for systems upgrades in the 55-year-old County-City Building that will ensure its viability for decades to come.

We are adjusting the new building's parking and traffic plan to minimize impacts on the surrounding neighborhood. The County Council is set to consider the lease next month.

County employees who would be part of the move tell me they are excited about joining Tacoma’s up-and-coming Lincoln district. We intend to be good neighbors.

I encourage you to find out more by visiting www.piercecountywa.org.

Pat McCarthy is serving her second term as the elected Pierce County executive.