Pierce County drops historic preservation officer

Pierce County officials have confirmed budget cuts have forced the county to eliminate its historic preservation officer position.

The position, once held by Julia Park, was part of the Planning and Land Services (PALS) Department. Park spent 20 hours per week supporting the Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission and the overall historic preservation program, and 20 hours per week as a senior planner.

Park’s last day was Dec. 31.

“We’re all rolling up our sleeves,” said PALS Division Manager Sean Gaffney, who supervised the historic preservation officer. Gaffney said he will support the landmarks commission on an interim basis until another staff member is selected. “We’re doing more with less and not hiring anyone else. It’s been a whirlwind around here. Some people think we are stopping [the landmarks commission]. That’s not the case. It’s not business as usual, but I’m going to make every commitment to keep things rolling.”

The landmarks commission discussed the possibility of losing the position during its Dec. 8 meeting. Some members were scheduled to meet with PALS director Chuck Kleeberg the following week to discuss their concerns.

During an interview Dec. 9, Kleeberg told the Index layoff notices were sent to 27 people in his department. He pointed to slumps in new construction of residential housing, and permitting fees associated with that activity, as the major factor for declining revenue. A permitting boom in 2005 began to drop off in mid-2006 and bottomed out in 2007, he said.

“It sucks to lose any program,” said Kleeberg. “These are real people with real families. I hate it. But when the council or policymakers decide it’s going to be those cuts, we’re going to do it. There’s not a single person on the layoff list that we’re better off rid of.
“I’m sort of at the bottom of my bag of tricks,” he added.


Indeed, on Oct. 29, Kleeberg appeared before Pierce County Council to present his budget proposal for 2010. He reported that 2010 revenue was expected to be down 2.5 percent against 2009 revenue. He added that since 2006, PALS has eliminated 26 full-time positions. In 2009, the entire department (except for members of one union) participated in nine days of unpaid furloughs. “We’ve been on our own little roller coaster ride,” Kleeberg told councilmembers.

He hoped to offset the deficit by eliminating three full-time positions, collecting revenue from a “slight uptick” in residential building permits, and raising fees. But his proposal also called for less spending in the area of historic preservation: $100,000 would be spent on historical document maintenance in 2010 compared to $496,200 budgeted in 2009. Similarly, the budget proposal eliminated funding for a part-time employee to write grants seeking money for historic preservation projects. In the end, County Council adopted a budget that cut $1.9 million from PALS.


The loss of the historic preservation officer comes at a time when the county’s program was starting to gain momentum.

In 2008, Pierce County awarded $194,162.68 to 15 organizations for a variety of historic preservation projects such as artifact conservation at Fort Nisqually, newspaper clipping preservation at the Tacoma Public Library, and a monument for Allen C. Mason Plaza ( http://www.co.pierce.wa.us/xml/services/home/property/pals/other/histpresgrantrecipients08-09.pdf ).

Last year, the County Council awarded $110,000 to Artifacts Architectural Consulting to undertake an historic property survey. Similarly, Historical Research Associates was awarded $60,000 to conduct a survey of historic documents including photographs, maps, newspaper clippings, and oral histories. The County Council authorized an additional $70,000 for five cities with historic preservation programs to do their own historic property surveys. The projects were funded by a $1 recording fee surcharge passed by the Washington Legislature. The results will be compiled in a database that will be available to historians, educators, researchers, and the general public online via the Pierce County Library System later this year.

Last month, Pierce County was one of six counties to receive a Landmark Deeds Award for Public Service from the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.


Gaffney is unsure if there will be another grant program this year. He said there may be an opportunity to do a small grant cycle if any money is left over from the historic document maintenance budget. “There might be an opportunity to do a small grant cycle with a small amount of money,” he said. “We talked about that at our last meeting. We would like to do something just to keep the momentum going.”

In the interim, the commission is trying to function with fewer resources.

“We were very disappointed to see Julia let go,” said landmarks commissioner Bob Peters. “We had our meeting last week. Everybody is learning. [Sean Gaffney] is learning the job by being dumped into the middle of it.”

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For earlier Tacoma Daily Index coverage of Pierce County historic preservation, click on the following links:

1. ‘Roller coaster’ economy taps Pierce County PALS budget (11/03/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1654044&more=0

2. A Conversation with Pierce County’s History Detectives (10/16/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1643972&more=0

3. Pierce County’s History Detectives (10/15/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1643122&more=0 or http://www.wahmee.com/tdi_pc_history_detectives.pdf

4. Budget amendment bitter-sweet for Pierce County historic preservation (03/20/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1512898&more=0

5. Department shift for Pierce County’s historic preservation program? (03/16/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1509016&more=0

6. Pierce County Council Committee will discuss proposed historic preservation funding cuts (03/06/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1503447&more=0

7. Will $8 million budget shortfall touch Pierce County historic preservation? (01/29/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1479375&more=0

8. Behind The Times: Never mind the buildings. Can Pierce County restore its historic preservation program? (04/02/08) — http://www.wahmee.com/tdi_pierce_county_preservation.pdf .