Citing too many unanswered questions, Northampton County Council on Thursday night voted to table a proposed ordinance that would authorize a lease-to-buy option for the construction of a centralized Human Services building in Bethlehem Township.
By a 6-2 vote, Council tabled for one month an ordinance that would have authorized the lease of a yet-to-be-constructed 66,375-square-foot building on 5.3 acres within Lehigh Valley Industrial Park VI on Emrick Boulevard.
The proposed Human Services building would be designed and constructed by Polaris Emrick Development, with the county being responsible for various interior improvements and yearly rent. The first year's rent and planned improvements are estimated to run the county upwards of $950,000.
Officials have said the goal would be for the county to purchase the building between the fifth and 15th year of the lease.
Financing for the proposed building hinges in large part on the proposed sale of the two aging facilities currently housing the county’s Human Services Department, the Governor Wolf building in Easton and the Bechtel building in Bethlehem.
County Executive John Stoffa has said the centralized building would improve services to the more than 18,300 residents the 250-employee department serves and save money over the long-term by allowing the county to sell the Wolf and Bechtel buildings and, in the process, avoid millions of dollars in capital costs to these aging facilities. Stoffa, who said the plan had been studied for almost a year, noted the proposed lease-to-buy would be carried out without the county borrowing money.
Questions over the value and marketability of the Wolf and Bechtel buildings appeared to be a major factor in council’s decision to table the ordinance Thursday night, as well as inquiries over whether the county may be better off constructing a new facility on its own. Both properties were appraised, but county officials did not want to publicly state the amounts, citing real estate negotiations as the reason to withhold these figures. Several officials and members of the public raised concerns over whether the appraised values would actually equal the ultimate purchase price.
“Too much is being predicated on selling these two old buildings and I have no idea what we’re going to get for them,” Councilwoman Peg Ferraro said. She called on the administration to review the possibility of constructing a Human Services facility on the Gracedale property owned by the county in Upper Nazareth Township.
During a public hearing held immediately prior to council tabling the ordinance, several residents offered input, mostly against the proposal.
Ron Heckman, a former County Council member, said he is concerned that recent cuts in Human Services funding from the state and federal governments will continue, resulting in “all the costs to fund the new building coming from the Human Services budget and diverting money needed for services to brick and mortar.”
Heckman called for the county to locate all non-court related services under one roof, which would result in no single department shouldering the financial burden.
Former County Council member Ron Angle called on the county to construct a new facility on its own. With bond rates at historic lows, he believes it would be cheaper for the county to build a facility on its own and bond the costs over 30 years.
Angle questioned the proposed lease-to-buy arrangement for the Emrick Boulevard site. “If you buy it in 5 or 15 years from now, you have no idea what the interest rates are going to be,” he said, noting that the county would have a fixed bonding rate if building on its own. “You won’t get better rates. Now is the time to build.”
Angle also criticized the proposal to work with a private developer. “Someone else's profits are being built into these numbers,” he stated.
Like others at the meeting, Angle questioned how much value the Wolf and Bechtel buildings have.
“You’ve already broadcast the Governor Wolf building is a dump, so who cares about the appraisal,” Angle said to council. “You’ve already set the stage that you have a piece of garbage building.”
Speaking in favor of the proposed building was Neil Brown, a representative of the Pennsylvania Social Services Union that represents county Human Services employees.
Brown called for the relocation as soon as possible, noting “deplorable” conditions at the Wolf building. Among these conditions over the years, officials said, have been issues with heating, mold and asbestos.
“There have been grievances over conditions at the Wolf building for years,” Brown said.
Following Thursday night’s meeting, Stoffa declined to comment when asked for a response to the public hearing criticisms.
Councilman Scott Parsons, who made the motion to table the ordinance, urged his colleagues to get the answers they need from the administration immediately and be prepared to vote next month. “I don’t want to see this drag on. I want to make a decision next month, yes or no,” he said.
Back in December, Stoffa’s administration gave to council a presentation of the proposed Human Services relocation. The public presentation was given by Ken Mohr of Mohr Management Resources. Mohr is joined by several county officials serving on a project team that has been meeting to develop the relocation plans.
Mohr started off that presentation by saying that the project team concluded that relocating to a centralized facility was a better option than making a long-term commitment to the Wolf and Bechtel buildings.
It is estimated capital costs would exceed $3.3 million over the next decade to maintain the 120-year-old Wolf building, located on North 2nd Street in Easton, according to Mohr’s presentation. The Bechtel building, located on East Broad Street in Bethlehem, would require about $1 million in capital costs over the next decade. Officials also noted that selling these two buildings will eventually result in their return to the tax rolls.
In that December presentation, it was projected that the Wolf and Bechtel building sales could generate about $2.8 million, which would be used toward relocation, interior improvements, furnishings and other costs to get the Emrick Boulevard facility up and running.
Relocating to a new centralized facility, Mohr said, will create “one stop shopping” for convenience of clients. The new building would have a more efficient layout with lower operational costs. The building would be surrounded by a large parking lot accommodating 256 vehicles, making it easier for residents to access than the Wolf and Bechtel facilities.
Stoffa has advised against the county building a new facility on its own, which could take 3-5 years to complete. He says there is a need to relocate employees much sooner than that, especially from the Wolf building.
Mohr noted that the Emrick Boulevard site provides a central, convenient location to county residents. The proposed three-story building site is located on a road that runs parallel to Route 33 between William Penn Highway and Freemansburg Avenue.
The project team unanimously selected the Emrick Boulevard site as the best option among 26 potential properties identified through the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Commission.