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Saga continues over planned Pierce County Services Building

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The yet-to-be-built, and already controversial, Pierce County General Services Building, slated for the former Puget Sound Hospital site on the Pacific Avenue hillside, is headed for another round of hearings.

Two local residents, Leslie Young and Arthur Miller, have filed a lawsuit against Jerry Gibbs who has organized a group of people to gather signatures in an effort to put the whole plan up for a public vote in November. They filed the lawsuit on the grounds that the call for a referendum on the issue is not a legal use of the county’s referendum process because the decision to build the multi-million dollar office building falls under the sole duties of the County Council, which approved the deal in a 4-to-3 vote earlier this year.

The lawsuit comes after Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy filed a similar suit earlier this year that was later dropped by a vote of the council. The new lawsuit could end in a summary judgment as early as later this month or in May if both sides agree on an expedited hearing date.

“This is not Pierce County suing the voters, the so called ‘David v. Goliath’ argument, but a ‘David v. David’ dispute over what is just, right and legal,” Young and Miller stated in a release announcing the lawsuit. “We, the plaintiffs, are registered voters too, and are also taxpayers who reside in Pierce County. We believe this referendum is not a proper, legal referendum – as the actions of our government, Pierce County, were administrative in this case, not legislative. We do not want the citizens to waste time and as taxpayers, we believe the referendum calls for an unnecessary and inappropriate election.”

“We aren’t here to cause problems for our government,” Berry said. “We just want the people to have a vote. We have a right to protect our Constitution.”
John Berry, Petition Backer

As with most construction projects, delays mean prices go up. The county has said delaying the project has already meant the construction contract has had to be modified and that further delays of the private-public construction partnership could make the deal no longer financially viable.

The project is being funded through what is called a 63-20 partnership that allows the Seattle construction firm Wright Runstad to use tax-exempt bonds with the county agreeing to a lease-to-own package to pay off the debt over 30 years. The project is estimated to total $235 million in rental payments and interest. Construction costs for the nine-story building at 3580 Pacific Ave. are set at $127 million, but that is being renegotiated because of the delay of a missed groundbreaking originally set for March 17.

Gibbs vows to keep gathering signatures, calling the latest lawsuit another attempt to bully him from calling for a public vote on the project. Signature gatherers would have to get 24,427 valid signatures by late June to qualify for the November ballot.

“This is now the second attempt to suppress the vote on the people in Pierce County and prevent the referendum from appearing on the November General Election ballot…,” he stated.

Word of the latest lawsuit prompted Pierce County Council Chair Dan Roach to propose an ordinance to call for a public advisory vote before the plan moves forward.

“This process has been muddied every step of the way, but through it all one thing has remained crystal clear…the people want their voices heard,” said Roach. “The ordinance I’m proposing will hopefully settle this matter for the time being and restore for citizens their right to participate in county government without fear of being sued to keep silent.”

The driver behind the new building is to house many county services in one place to end leases at about a dozen facilities around the county and avoid costly repairs at the Pierce County Annex. The converted department store dates back to the 1950s. Renovations there would cost about $12 million. The county spends about $3.2 million in lease payments at eight buildings in Tacoma. Lease payments at the new facility would be about $8 million a year.

Ending lease payments through consolidation into the new facility, the sale of the annex building, and the $4 million in projected annual savings through the laying off 38 staff positions would combine to fund the lease-to-own payments at the General Services Building without the need to raise taxes, county documents state. The combined projected savings totals $300 million over the coming decades. The facility would house 19 county departments and 1,300 workers, including about 250 staffers at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, a separate agency that has agreed to be a tenant in the 330,000-square-foot building for $1 million a year in lease payments.