Northampton County: Building plan divides council
Northampton County Executive John Stoffa hopes he will see a centralized human services building before he finishes his term in office.
According to Stoffa, 18,000 residents use the county's human services at two different buildings and the county needs to do a better job of providing these services and protecting the people who live and work in these buildings. The Governor Wolf Building in Easton and the Martin J. Bechtel Building in Bethlehem are currently owned by the county, but both buildings need millions of dollars in capital improvements.
On Northampton County Council's agenda is a proposal to accept a 15-year lease agreement for a 66,375-square-foot building with 256 parking spaces on Emrick Boulevard between Freemansburg Avenue and William Penn Highway. The lease, with an option to purchase in five years, would cost $1 million a year. The Wolf and Bechtel buildings would be sold to raise capital for the new centralized human services facility.
At council's Jan. 24 meeting, council refused to take action on approving the lease agreement, asking for more time to consider the best plan of action.
At council's Feb. 7 meeting, the discussion continued with a clearly divided council as to what the best plan is.
Councilman Lamont McClure wants the two buildings sold before he will agree to commit funds to lease a new building. McClure says it will improve the purchase price of the older buildings if the prospective buyers don't see it as a forced sale to pay for the new building.
Stoffa countered with the logistics of such an action. Where do the 246 human services workers go after we sell the buildings? Would you sell your current car before you had another vehicle to drive? Stoffa asked council.
Stoffa added that it's difficult for some veterans needing service to get to the office, which requires navigating some hilly terrain. Of the 23,960 veterans living in the county, the Veterans Affairs office serves about 35 a week. Some veterans would like to use the services but they just can't get there, he said.
Councilman Bruce Gilbert agreed that the Emrick Boulevard location is easier to get to and that services will be used more. Gilbert used the example of his own older relatives, who refuse to go to places that it takes too much effort to get to.
Some council members support building a new facility for human services but want to build on Gracedale's county-owned property in upper Nazareth.
But Gilbert said he does not see that option as a good solution for county residents because it also is difficult to get to.
Council members who support building on county-owned property were told that the approval process would still require having building plans, traffic studies and other surveys done to start building and that could take three to five years.
According to a PowerPoint presentation which is viewable on Northampton County's home page at www.northamptoncounty.org, some additional services that a centralized facility at Emrick Boulevard would offer are the ability to expand the state's mandated human services to the county's 280,000 residents and to make more accessible through a general services window the residents' abilities to pay their bills and purchase licenses.
Councilman Tom Dietrich, who chairs council's Human Services Committee, has scheduled Ken Mohr, from Mohr Management Resources, to answer council's additional concerns. The Human Services meeting will take place at 4 p.m., Feb. 21 before council's next regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. on the third floor of Northampton County Courthouse at 669 Washington St., Easton.