Opinion Columns & Blogs

Where’s public input on $90 million county project?

Pierce County may be about to approve one of the largest investments of taxpayer money in its history – without public approval and with little comment.

The County Council is being asked to authorize $90 million in early February to build an eight-story office tower at South 36th Street and Pacific Avenue in Tacoma’s Lincoln District residential neighborhood. Ask around, and you’ll find bewilderment. Few have heard about it or been asked for advice.

The sophisticated financing plan proposed to the council allows the county to do this without talking to those who use county services, taxpayers, community leaders or other stakeholders across the county. Normally governments have to get voter participation for things of this scale, ensuring a reality check. The council so far is excluding citizen input.

A process of community input and review is critical to sound decision making, whether a vote is legally required or not.

Council members need to stand firm on their values of open government, community input and fiscal responsibility. Hit the pause button. Take a time-out and have the county team engage the community properly before committing to this 30-year, $90 million obligation.

The county’s current offices are like a good, solid, middle-class home in a pleasant neighborhood. It’s functional and could be cleaned up nicely.

County leaders now want to use our money to build a new, expensive home. It costs twice as much, but it’ll be beautiful. Interest rates are low so, hey, let’s go for it.

The problem is that it costs a lot more. The executive and staff want the council to approve it anyway and have stories of why this is really OK. Don’t talk to citizens and taxpayers or get outside independent analysis – just give us $90 million to build an office tower.

The project will cost approximately $3 million a year more to operate than the current space. If this were part of a 50-year master plan, it might make sense, but there does not appear to be such a plan.

When the current proposal was developed, site alternatives were limited to three. Other good alternatives were not considered. The criteria amounted to, according to two senior-level county staff, “where the parking is the cheapest.” They did not get this part right; the current proposal has only 700 parking stalls for 1,300 employees and more than 1,000 visitors a day. It does not pass the math test.

What’s the solution? Form an advisory group made up of stakeholders from all seven County Council districts; community, civic and business leaders; county customers; and citizens with appropriate technical backgrounds. This open, representative process would provide sound, reasonable solutions.

Community input would bring a broader perspective. We’d likely get clearer answers to some important questions:

And why this radical move from the downtown civic center – where county headquarters has always been – to a single-family residential neighborhood?

We’ve invested heavily in transportation from the Dome District – including the new Link light rail expansion that will run down Martin Luther King Jr. Way – yet this regional imperative is absent from the site decision. Tacoma and other cities throughout the country have emphasized revitalizing their civic centers, but the county’s project appears to place little value on it.

We invite the County Council to stand up for the citizens. Put this project on pause. Gather a group of thoughtful people from across the county and do the process right.

Don’t fly under the radar screen. Be open and transparent; do it the way you would if you needed public support and taxpayer approval. You’ll get a better result.

Jim Merritt is an architect and fourth-generation Pierce County resident. Kevin Grossman is president of Hilltop Business Association. Other authors are Dawn Lucien, Sean Ragudo, Claudia Riedener, Mario Lorenz and Elizabeth Burris.