County makes right move with new building plan

The News Tribune The News TribuneJuly 28, 2013 

It seems counterintuitive, but Pierce County officials say that constructing a new county administration building would actually save almost $40 million over the next 25 years.

They make a convincing argument.

Currently, county departments are spread out over 15 locations: the County-City Building, annex buildings near Costco, several other county-owned properties and leased space in eight buildings.

Leasing office space is costly, with rents increasing on average about 2.5 percent annually. It’s also becoming more and more expensive to maintain the county’s aging annex buildings. Being so spread out keeps county departments from interacting efficiently and creates cumbersome hurdles for citizens who have to visit multiple locations to conduct business. Parking can be a problem.

Razing the county’s shuttered Puget Sound Hospital and constructing a new administration building on the 13.3-acre site would address all of these problems. Most county departments would move to the new building, making room for others to move out of leased space and into county-owned buildings. The County-City Building would become a law and justice center housing the Superior and District courts, Sheriff’s Department administration and prosecuting attorney’s office. The number of county government sites would go from 15 to 6.

The proposal would allow the county to sell the annex site and terminate all its leases. Having so many departments co-located in one place would allow a number of savings, from reduced mileage expenses in traveling between offices to consolidating functions like security, reception, cash handling and information technology. Free parking would be abundant, and the county could downsize by 20 FTEs, saving about $2 million per year.

If the county does nothing, its annual operating expenses would be $4.62 million in 2015 – and continue to increase. If it constructs a new administration building and gets out of its many leases, that number would be reduced to a fairly stable $4.27 million – which even includes debt service on the cost of construction over a 30-year period.

The county proposes financing the $67 million building with the 63-20 program – a public-private partnership using tax-exempt bonds that is about 30 percent less expensive than the traditional design/bid/build process. Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters was built using this program.

County Executive Pat McCarthy has signed off on the proposal and in September will ask the County Council to approve a nonprofit corporation to manage the project. The following week, the council will be asked to approve $1 million for design costs. At most, the county would be out that $1 million should the project be scuttled.

Unless new information comes to light that casts doubt on the county’s financial projections, the proposal looks like a sensible way to improve service while cutting costs – something even skeptical taxpayers should support.

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