Veterans, homeless could be casualties of Benton-Franklin standoff

Benton County is pursuing a plan to dissolve a bicounty agency that jointly serves needy veterans and homeless residents of Benton and Franklin counties and create a separate agency.
Benton County is pursuing a plan to dissolve a bicounty agency that jointly serves needy veterans and homeless residents of Benton and Franklin counties and create a separate agency. Tri-City Herald

The agency that helps struggling Mid-Columbia veterans and other needy residents could become a casualty of an ongoing feud between the Benton and Franklin county commissions.

The Benton-Franklin Human Services Department would be split in two under a proposal pitched by Benton County Commissioner Shon Small during the commission’s weekly meeting Tuesday.

Small, together with commissioners Jerome Delvin and Jim Beaver, directed the county administrator “take steps to dissolve the bi-county operation” by the end of the current fiscal year, which ends in June.

Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier told the Tri-City Herald later that replacing a bicounty agency with two smaller ones is concerning.

“You know I’m in favor of limited government. When two counties can share this, it saves the taxpayers money,” he said.

Franklin County Administrator Keith Johnson said he was shocked but not entirely surprised.

“We recognize the relationship is strained,” Johnson said.

The three Benton County commissioners and the county administrator did not return calls Tuesday about the issue.

Serves the needy

The bicounty human services department administers state and federal grants to provide affordable housing, mental health, behavioral and substance abuse services to the region’s most vulnerable residents.

Low-income veterans and the homeless are the primary clients for services, which are typically delivered by contracted vendors.

If the bicounty relationship is dissolved, the vendors may have to enter new agreements with the individual agencies.

A split could affect funding too since some grants are given to regional agencies that tackle the broad challenges, said county officials.

The head of one Tri-City nonprofit that currently provides housing services told the Herald she needed time to review their contracts to determine if, or how, a split would affect services. But she was surprised by the unexpected move.

Past county tensions

Benton County’s move to dissolve its human services agency is the latest in an ongoing series of flareups between the two commissions, which have struggled over the cost to administer shared responsibilities.

Benton County administers the shared operations, with Franklin County paying a share based on its smaller population. Franklin pays administrative fees as well and has pledged to pay its share.

The continuing battle has led to previous attempts to eliminate joint operations.

In 2015, Benton County dissolved the joint office of public defense. It also unsuccessfully sought support in Olympia to dissolve Benton-Franklin Superior Court, which has existed since Washington statehood.

In 2016, the counties wrestled with how to administer the crisis response unit, then part of the human services agency.

Crisis response, which responds to mental health emergencies, was eventually turned over to Lourdes Counseling over complaints that the county-run office was failing to serve people in crisis.

Talk of dissolving human services quieted, for a time.

Johnson said he hasn’t heard it discussed at the commission level for more than a year.

$1.5 million judgment

Franklin County’s Didier blamed a recent judgment against the two counties for ratcheting up the tension.

Last week, a Walla Walla County Superior Court jury awarded $1.5 million in damages to Linda Robb, the former head of the bicounty human service department.

Robb led the department from 2014 until she was fired on a 5-1 vote of the two county commissions in August 2015.

In her 2016 wrongful termination suit against the two counties, Robb argued she was the victim of a campaign of harassment by Benton County’s Shon Small because she objected to his efforts to turn the crisis response unit over to Lourdes.

A juror later told the Tri-City Herald the verdict turned on testimony by Peck that Robb was wrongly terminated.

Didier, who was not on the commission when Robb was fired, said he was troubled by the testimony and feared Benton County will attempt to dissolve additional ties.

“Benton and Franklin, we’re neighbors, we’ve got to work together,” he said.

The two counties also share responsibility for the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Justice Center on Canal Drive in Kennewick.

Last week, Franklin County’s Peck and Benton County’s Delvin spent a day jointly lobbying Washington lawmakers to reserve about $7 million in the 2019 capital budget for a $10 million update to the aging justice complex.

Tuesday discussion

Tuesday’s discussion to dissolve the joint agency still needs to be officially voted on by the Benton County commissioners.

The county’s published meeting agenda did not indicate the topic would be discussed. Small proposed the move during the “other business” section of the meeting.

Ryan Brown, Benton County’s chief deputy prosecutor and counsel to the commission, said the commissioners are free to discuss whatever they wish under “other business.”

Benton County published it’s informal decision later in a roundup of the meeting.

While the county no longer videotapes its commission meetings, it posts the audio online here at bit.ly/bentonaudio.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.