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Advisory vote on Pierce County hub clears courtroom hurdle

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A Superior Court judge has ruled that efforts to gain enough signatures to put a referendum on the fall ballot to determine the future of the planned Pierce County General Services building can move forward.

Judge Kevin Hull ruled last week that a lawsuit against the signature gathering lacked the legal standing required, allowing volunteers to continue to gain support for a public vote on the $230 million project in November. At least for now, that is.

The ruling came because the judge determined that the lawsuit filers, Leslie Young and Anthony Miller, lacked standing to sue because they didn’t have direct ties to any potential injury caused by the building not being built if residents voted down the deal. Only Pierce County and the potential developers could make that claim. Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy had filed a lawsuit but that was withdrawn by a split vote of the Pierce County Council, and the developers have remained silent on the issue.

Hull’s decision, however, leaves open the legal questions surrounding the idea that a referendum on a council decision concerning administrative issues is even legal under the county charter. That question centers on the debate over what is an administrative decision – approving a contract – and what is a financial decision concerning taxpayer dollars.

The already complex debate concerning the effort to merge many county offices currently dotted around leased spaces in Tacoma into offices at the former site of the Puget Sound Hospital on the Pacific Avenue hillside now gets a bit more twisted, with the potential of two public votes on the project in the coming months. One vote in August would be an advisory vote that was called by a split vote of the County Council in April, while another vote in November would be a binding referendum if enough signatures – 24,427 of them ­– are gathered by July 1.

If the August vote affirms the project, the building could still move forward since the vote is only advisory. The project could also proceed if the referendum gains enough signatures, but fails at the ballot box in November because the County Council already approved the project in February.

Pierce County started researching ways to lower its operational costs in 2009 and determined that the best way to cut rental and maintenance costs would be to create a one-stop facility that houses many key county services instead of continuing to lease aging offices around Tacoma.
That process developed plans to build a new general government building that would be funded through what is called a 63-20 plan, which has a private developer building the facility that would then have a lease-to-own contract with the county for 30 years. The county would then own the building outright.

The county would pay the lease by a combination of staff reductions, money gained from the ending of the current rental spaced that would move into the new building and from a sublease with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.