County Council approves new General Services Building plan

After years of planning, members of the Pierce County Council voted 4-3 on Feb. 17 to proceed with a major consolidation of county services into a new General Services Building.

Councilmembers Rick Talbert (District 5), Connie Ladenburg (District 4), Derek Young (District 7), and Joyce McDonald (District 2) voted for the plan. Council Chair Dan Roach (District 1) and Councilmembers Doug Richardson (District 6) and Jim McCune (District 3) voted against it.

The consolidation will bring together 19 departments and divisions currently scattered in 14 locations, including eight commercial leases covering 150,000 square feet.

“This business plan will save taxpayers millions of dollars in leases, staffing and maintenance costs,” said Councilmember Talbert, who represents the area in Tacoma’s South End that will house the new campus. “We have carefully analyzed current and future costs, asset values, risk, and more. An independent consultant verified our staff savings through consolidation. This pencils out in the taxpayers’ interest.”

The 330,000-square-foot building will be constructed on the county-owned, 13-acre Pacific Avenue campus just up the hill from downtown. That site currently houses the former Puget Sound Hospital, which closed years ago. The county negotiated a “guaranteed maximum price” of $126.9 million with the developer, Wright Runstad & Company.

“This makes good business sense. We will redirect eight current lease payments to this new building, and the consolidation will enable us to cut 38 staff positions, saving another $4 million a year,” said Councilmember Ladenburg. “No taxes will be raised to pay for this. We can pay for it with existing resources and the savings gained from consolidating our services, and the savings will grow over time.”

The county made adjustments to the project based on feedback from the public, including four community meetings in January and February.

County Executive Pat McCarthy publicly introduced the proposal in 2013 after several years of studying the service delivery in all county facilities — owned and leased. Under the plan adopted Tuesday, most general government services will be consolidated into one General Services Building in a lease-to-own agreement with a nonprofit corporation. Services will include building permits, business licenses, Health Department records, and property tax payments, among others.

The Executive thanked the County Council majority for analyzing the cost difference between the status quo and the savings over the next 30 years.

“Taxpayers expect us to utilize public resources efficiently and effectively. This plan will save money while improving the delivery of services to the 820,000 residents we serve,” she said. “My administration will now complete the planning for the staff changes and program improvements made possible by consolidating 19 departments and divisions into one location.”

Chairman Roach, in explaining his position, said the reliance on staff savings was too risky.

“In order to make the mortgage payments, 38.1 jobs would have to stay eliminated for the duration of the mortgage, and we can’t promise that future councils and executives would adhere to that,” he said. “I sincerely hope I’m proven wrong and everything works out for the best, but I couldn’t in good conscience ask our taxpayers to shoulder that risk. I wouldn’t make that commitment with my own money, and I don’t think we should make it with their money either.”

The building will house approximately 1,300 employees, including about 250 from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, an independent agency that is joining the county as a tenant in the new building. Other tenants will include the four departments in the Pierce County Annex, a 1950s-era building that originally housed a discount department store. The Annex site likely will be sold.

The county’s existing downtown campus, anchored by the County-City Building, will continue to house about 1,000 employees from the law and justice sectors in what will be redeveloped with existing resources over time as the Pierce County Justice Center.

Construction of the General Services Building will begin next month, with occupancy expected in fall 2016. Project documents and updates are available at www.piercecountywa.org/gsb.

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