|Peg Ferraro feels lease proposal is "rushed"|
Stoffa is proposing a 15-year lease for a 3-story, 66,375 sq ft building on 5.36 acres, with 256 parking places. Located on Emrick Boulevard, between Freemansburg Avenue and William Penn Highway, the facility will cost the County about a million dollars a year in rent. It is a triple net lease, meaning that the County will also pick up the tab for taxes, utilities and insurance. Every five years, the County will have an option to purchase.
Polaris Properties, which owns the tract, will build the facility by the end of this year if the lease is approved. Polaris has agreed to pay prevailing wages for the construction, which means this would be a union job.
Stoffa has called the proposal a "golden opportunity to do something terrific" for the 18,000 people who use the County's human services at two different buildings
The Governor Wolf Building, located at 45 N 2d St in Easton, is a 52,171 sq ft schoolhouse, built in 1893. Purchased by the County in 1986 for $912,000, it is home to 173 human services workers. It needs $3.3 million in capital repairs and improvements over the next 5-10 years. The day before Council met, the building had to be closed because the heat failed. Employees who work there complained about caving ceilings and lead paint exposure
The Martin J. Bechtel Building, located at 520 E Broad Street in Bethlehem, is a 28,000 sq ft facility, built in 1962. Purchased by the County in 1993 for $763,000, it houses 70 human services workers. It needs $1 million in capital improvements and repairs over the next 5-10 years.
Under Stoffa's proposal, these building will be sold, and the $2.8 million in expected proceeds will be used for improvements at the new Bethlehem Township facility.
County administrators, along with Council members Ken Kraft and Tom Dietrich, have been working on this proposal for a year. Twenty-six sites were considered, and four proposals were solicited. But the full Council was unfamiliar with the lease proposal until mid-December, and need more time to digest the details.
Council member Peg Ferraro complained that she felt as though she was being "rushed by a salesman." She questioned why the County did not give more consideration to building on the Gracedale campus in Upper Nazareth. Stoffa had earlier stated that building at Gracedale would take 3-5 years, and the County would also be forced to pay $4.3 million for improvements to the Wolf and Bechtel buildings. While that was going on, employees would have to be relocated.
Former Council members Ron Heckman and Ron Angle spoke against the lease proposal. Heckman questioned building a new human services building at a time when the federal and state governments are reducing grants for human services. Angle complained about the prevailing wage clause in the lease, noting that it is great for the unions but anti-taxpayer. "This could be done for a lot less money," he argued. He also questioned whether the County will get any money fro the sale of the Wolf and Bechtel buildings. "You've already brought out that you have a dump," he declared.
Scott Parsons, who defeated Angle in a recent Council race, smiled at his former opponent and said, "You did nothing but raise questions for me, and that's probably a good thing. I've hedged on this back and forth." Parsons moved to table the lease to give Council members more time. His motion passed 6-2, with Council member Ken Kraft and President John Cusick opposed.
Cusick was visibly annoyed with Council members, some of whom had failed to attend a lengthy discussion about the lease the previous day. He noted that when he had questions, he asked the administration and got answers.
"Make a decision!" exclaimed Cusick. "Ultimately, that is what you're here to do."
In his first year in office, a Stoffa proposal for a centralized human services building was shot down by Council.
Consultant Ken Mohr was unfazed. He explained that his proposal for Coca Cola Park was originally rejected, too.