Officials push for efficiency on Benton Co. seat

KENNEWICK -- The three Benton County officials with the most employees at the county courthouse in Prosser say that regardless of whether voters agree next week to move the county seat to Kennewick, more of their employees should make the move.

County Treasurer Duane Davidson, Auditor Brenda Chilton and Assessor Barbara Wagner say the current distribution of their employees is inefficient because the majority of their employees should be closer to the center of the county's estimated 170,000 people.

All three officials are less concerned about whether the title of county seat moves from Prosser to Kennewick than they are about how to make their offices more efficient. None favors a minimal-cost move of a handful of employees because they say the majority of all three departments' staffs should be in Kennewick -- both for efficiency in their individual departments and because all three departments work closely together.

Two of the officials -- Wagner and Chilton -- are up for election, whileDavidson is unopposed. None of them is taking a stance on how they stand on the county seat ballot issue, saying that's not the real question.

"Sometimes we tackle problems with the wrong solutions," Davidson said.

He added, "If 60 percent of the voters approve the county seat removal measure on the Nov. 2 ballot, there is little to be gained in a minimum cost move. The three of us (treasurer, assessor and auditor) aren't gaining anything if that is the way it is structured."

Davidson said bringing greater efficiency to county government doesn't require moving the county seat.

"The only way to keep the county unified and the people in Prosser satisfied is to have permanent satellite offices at the (existing) courthouse and move the rest of county government to Kennewick," he said.

Davidson said greater use of computer technology also could help avoid the need for new construction in Kennewick or Prosser.

"An e-courthouse may be the answer," he said. "We should be putting county resources into making more records available online. Using the latest technologies and having offices where they are needed is the answer."

Chilton said her official position on removing the county seat is "no position," but she agrees making better use of technology and offering county services in multiple locations is better public service.

Still, Chilton said she would like to see the majority of her staff members now in Prosser moved to offices in Kennewick.

Currently, the five employees who handle accounting duties for the auditor's office are in Prosser. Moving the accounting division to Kennewick would put those employees closer to where the assessor and treasurer already have Kennewick offices.

"This has been a discussion for a long time between the auditor, assessor and treasurer. We need to be co-located," Chilton said.

At the least, Chilton added, she wants to see all of her elections employees in Kennewick. The office now has one elections employee at the county annex on Canal Drive in Kennewick while four others work in Prosser. She said having all elections division employees and activity in Kennewick would make it easier to recruit the part-time help needed at election time.

"I think the efficiencies can be gained either way. It's whatever the public wants," Chilton said.

Wagner said moving the county seat won't do much unless it includes moving more staff to Kennewick. She said most of the work her staff does is in the Kennewick end of the county, where most of the population and property parcels are located.

Wagner has nine employees in Kennewick and 15 in Prosser but would like to see that reversed.

County commissioners Jim Beaver and Leo Bowman have said if voters approve the move they would prefer a minimum move. That would mean only the commissioners, their support staff and the road engineer would follow the county seat shift to Kennewick.

But Wagner said, "That won't give us the efficiencies we want."

Most other county department offices already are primarily in the Tri-Cities, including the sheriff's office, jail, building department and justice center.

The question of efficiency was a primary reason the Benton-Franklin League of Women Voters voted to support moving the county seat. The league studied the issue for about a year before saying the move would better serve the county's population center.

The league also said the move is needed to satisfy a state law requiring that county courts do business in the county seat. The courts were long ago moved to Kennewick, and the elected judges have agreed the county seat should be moved to satisfy state law and avoid unnecessary building in Prosser.

In fact, the issue of whether the county was violating the law on the courts operating in the county seat was the primary reason former Superior Court Judge Fred Staples petitioned to put the county seat move on the ballot.

The issue of how much it would cost to move the county seat has been very confusing because of widely disparate estimates being thrown around in the campaign.

Consultant Entrix Inc., which was hired by the county to analyze the costs of moving the county seat to Kennewick, determined that a minimum move actually could save the county a net $141,000 over the next decade. It said savings would come from efficiencies and reduced business travel of county employees between the Tri-Cities and Prosser.

But Entrix also said moving the maximum number of about 100 employees based in Prosser and leaving only a few in Prosser satellite offices could cost $3.5 million over 10 years.

The consultant's estimates are far exceeded by Benton County Citizens for Better Government, a group formed to oppose the county seat move. That group argues instead it would cost $7 million to $30 million, which includes the loss of business in Prosser and employee commuting costs.

Entrix did not include any cost for loss of business in Prosser, assuming that money still would be spent in the county -- but in Kennewick.

Keith Sattler, a Prosser accountant who is spokesman for the opposition group, claims county administrator David Sparks estimated a county seat move with all employees in Prosser going to Kennewick would require about $30 million in new construction.

Sparks, however, told the Herald the $30 million estimate was "to move everything, including having an underground parking garage" built in Kennewick.

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