Benton County seat move debated with editors

By John Trumbo, Herald staff writerSeptember 22, 2010 

KENNEWICK — Benton County voters will decide Nov. 2 whether to move the county seat from Prosser to Kennewick, but the unanswered question is at what cost?

For retired judge Fred Staples, who has been leading the relocation charge for 20 years, it is nearly "nothing." A consultant hired by the county to figure the tab says a minimalist move would be $6,600.

But for Keith Sattler, a Prosser certified accountant representing opposition to the county seat vacating the courthouse, the cost is in the millions.

Sattler and Staples couldn't agree on the numbers Tuesday during a meeting with the Tri-City Herald editorial board.

The former Superior Court judge claims moving the county seat would need only for the county road engineer and county executive to pack up for Kennewick, leaving 103 county employees at their jobs in Prosser.

But Sattler believes such a move starts the exodus of county department heads, with their employees surely following.

Entrix, the consultant from Seattle hired to calculate the financial costs associated with a county seat move, said it would cost $3.5 million to provide needed office space in Kennewick for the relocated employees.

But Sattler said the true costs should include the impact to county employees and the economic loss to Prosser because of jobs leaving town.

"Things are operating fine the way they are. Why increase costs if we don't have to?" Sattler said.

"It's already cost over $100,000 to get this to the ballot," he added.

But Staples said the county commissioners, Sattler and a group he called Benton County Citizens for Responsible Government aren't saying what the costs are to keep the county seat in Prosser.

"If this fails, they are going to spend a lot of money in Prosser," said Staples, who shared a document showing that county commissioners have considered putting $11.3 million into building a new 40,000-square-foot administration building in Kennewick with a 20,000-square-foot underground parking garage, even if the county seat doesn't move.

They also have plans to do $3.8 million in remodeling and new construction for facilities at the courthouse property in Prosser.

But Sattler told the editorial board "there is no indication there will be any capital dollars spent between now and 2015."

The key issue for Sattler is how will moving the county seat benefit taxpayers.

Staples said the county assessor and treasurer think it is a good move and even signed his petitions calling for the issue to be on the ballot.

The arguments focused on costs and benefits, but Staples said voters shouldn't forget that the reason for moving the county seat is because the county seat is where Superior Court is supposed to do business.

"You have to hold regular sessions in the county seat," said Staples. "The court has no office, no telephone and no employee in Prosser. I think most of our judges would need a GPS to find the place," he added.

Sattler noted that a court commissioner presides over Superior Court matters every Thursday in Prosser, which satisfies the state law.

"Anyone who thinks the Supreme Court supports what has been going on here is crazy," Staples responded.

"If the Supreme Court thought it was an issue, they would've done something by now. It's been 30 years (since the justice center and most of the Superior Court business moved to Kennewick)," Sattler answered.

Aside from the ambiguous cost estimates and conflicting legal logic that Sattler and Staples couldn't agree on, the biggest issue for Prosser is the potential economic hit to the community if the commissioners choose to move county functions to Kennewick, leaving only satellite offices behind.

"The economic impact will be very hard on people in Prosser. We are losing payroll dollars here. It's devastating," Sattler said, referring to the closing of ConAgra's operations involving 250 jobs earlier this year.

Staples said he felt bad for Prosser's loss, but the big hit came more than 20 years ago when commissioners decided to build the justice center in Kennewick, moving the bulk of the county employees and courts away from Prosser.

Entrix's 86-page study that outlines various cost scenarios and relocation options is available online at www.co.bentoncounty.wa.us and clicking on the link to "County Seat Relocation Information" on the county's home page.

-- John Trumbo: 509-582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com

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