Benton and Franklin counties have reached a truce in a feud that began in January when Benton County said it wasn’t getting paid its full share of the cost to administer Benton-Franklin Superior Court.
Franklin County agreed to pay an additional $42,000 a year to Benton County to cover court-related administrative expenses.
In January, Benton’s elected leaders claimed they were subsidizing Franklin County’s share to administer bicounty courts, juvenile justice and human services by more than $661,000 a year, including $42,000 for courts.
Concerned about the legality of using taxpayer money to support another county, Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin investigated asking the state Legislature to divide the court. Since then, the counties got together to take a closer look at the cost differentials.
As a result, Franklin County commissioners signed off this week on the open-ended agreement that will continue the bicounty arrangement. The Benton County Commission is expected to vote on it March 29.
The new agreement replaces a memorandum of understanding on court operations that expires at the end of the month. The new agreement continues until terminated or rescinded by either county.
The agreement, negotiated by two county executives, will pay Benton County a 5 percent administration fee, or $33,000 annually, to manage payroll for bicounty court employees.
It also provides $9,000 to support the benefit accounts of non-judicial employees. Benton County originally sought a 7.5 percent administration fee but settled for the lower figure.
$232,383 Human Services
$186,639 Juvenile Court
$42,539 Superior Court
The two counties have their own courthouses, prosecutors and court staff. Benton County administers the combined system and bills Franklin County under an existing agreement. Franklin County accounts for about 30 percent of the court’s caseload.
Franklin County Administrator Keith Johnson negotiated the agreement with Loretta Smith-Kelty, Benton County’s deputy administrator.
Johnson called it a happy and respectful outcome to a contentious battle that pitted one set of commissioners against the other.
The two sides held their first joint meeting in seven months on Feb. 25. They agreed to take joint steps to develop plans for the bicounty Crisis Response unit to keep current with changing state requirements.
And on Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell thanked the Franklin commissioners for finding a reasonable and peaceful solution to a debate that threatened to divide a court system that has operated in some fashion since Washington statehood.
The judicial district can only be divided by the state Legislature.
Johnson said the two counties are still negotiating the other points of contention. He plans to bring new agreements covering juvenile court, personnel, the auditor and human services to the board this year.
He expects the final tally to be far less than Benton County’s original $661,000 estimate. He declined to give specifics, citing ongoing discussions with Benton County.
Benton County Commissioner Shon Small was not available to talk about the bicounty negotiations.