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County council approves lease for new human services building

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Feb 21 2013 10:11:20 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 22 2013 05:43:18 PM CST
EASTON, Pa. -

Thousands of people receiving help from Northampton County's human service programs will be getting assistance at a new, centralized location, possibly as soon as the end of the year.

County council voted 8-1 Thursday night to approve a lease for a three-story building at 2801 Emrick Blvd. in Bethlehem Township.

Services now offered at the Bechtel Building in Bethlehem and the Wolf Building in Easton would be consolidated in the new building, which will be built by Polaris Properties.

The lease could cost the county as much as $42.1 million if it runs the full 30 years, or as little as $19.5 million if the county decides to buy the building after five years. The lease provides the county with a buy-out option every five years.

Getting Human Services into one building has been a goal of county executive John Stoffa's since 2006, and the lease plan he helped to craft over the last year has been the source of some contentiousness among council members. But Thursday night, council member Robert Werner was the lone holdout.

Werner said he couldn't support the lease because of "the risk to the county. It's not a good fiscal decision." He said he has seen no written documentation about what it would take to upgrade the Bechtel and Wolf buildings, and that alternative ways of saving energy costs at a new building, including solar and geo-thermal, have not been discussed.

At the beginning of the meeting, only one of the nine people who spoke to council about the lease was against it -- county controller Steve Barron. "I believe you're paying a premium for the lease," he said. "You can do it cheaper." He also told council that the Stoffa administration "used people as pawns to sell you a lease."

Other speakers felt otherwise, including Jim Gregory, a union shop steward at the Bechtel Building; Freddie Ramirez Jr., the director of the office of veterans affairs, and Kevin Dolan, administrator of the Northampton County Office of Children, Youth and Families.

But perhaps the biggest impact on council was made by a slideshow put together by two of Dolan's workers, Kristin Kayal and Paula Kenderski. The women spotlighted the many health and safety issues at the Wolf Building -- including everything from water damage, mold and chipped lead paint to hard-to-find entrances and inadequate parking to poorly designed interview rooms for children and adults.

Before the vote, council members Scott Parsons and Lamont McClure pointed to what McClure called the workers' "compelling presentation" as helping convince them into supporting the lease they had criticized last month.

McClure also pointed to news from project consultant Ken Mohr Thursday night that council could expect to net $200,000 more than the $2.8 million projected for the sale of the Bechtel and Wolf buildings. "Perhaps that money could alleviate some of the pain of the first five years of the lease," he said.

Mohr told council that said he had been contacted by two developers about buying the Wolf Building, and that if council approved the lease, he could start negotiating on Friday and likely have a deal in a day or two.