Health district approves amended office lease

The Benton-Franklin Health District Board at a special meeting on Friday approved an amended lease for the district's office on West Okanogan Place that reduces the space available for the district, but with the same amount of rent paid to Benton County.

The new lease makes room in the building for the bicounty Department of Human Services to move its administrative offices from its current rented digs on Deschutes Avenue.

Benton County built the $10.3 million, 45,000-square-foot building in 2008 and leased the majority of it to the health district for $4,500 a month.

The idea was that the Benton Clean Air Authority would lease the rest, with some common spaces shared by both agencies.

But the authority never moved in, and the health district thought it eventually might expand into that space.

Shrinking revenues let the air out of that plan, and officials from the two counties started talking several months ago about moving human services into the building.

Benton County officials said in September they'd gain an extra $50,000 per year for the county's general fund by moving the human services department, which is paying $121,000 a year in rent for its current office space.

Human services likely would pay about $65,000 a year to occupy space in the Okanogan Place building, which is part of the Benton County Justice Center complex.

That would cover the $50,000 that Benton County pays each year toward debt for the building's construction, freeing that money up for other things.

But before the two sets of Benton and Franklin county commissioners could approve the human services move, they had to reconfigure the lease with the health district.

Dr. Larry Jecha, who runs the health district, raised concerns Friday that he hadn't been allowed to read the new lease before the meeting, and that the district is paying the same amount for about 11,000 fewer square feet.

Health district board member Leo Bowman, a Benton County commissioner, defended the terms, saying the district's rent never had been based on square footage, but rather on the debt the county must pay for the building.

He also suggested the health district would save money if another agency were in the building helping to pay the overhead such as heating.

Board member Brad Peck, a Franklin County commissioner, said he was worried the board was mixing business by talking about the human services department -- which is business they should do while wearing their county commissioner hats.

"It seems that we're blurring the two functions," Peck said. "I'd like to draw a bright line. ... This has nothing to do with whether this plan makes sense. It probably does. ... It behooves us all to keep these roles separate."

Benton County attorney Ryan Brown said he didn't think the conversation represented a conflict of interest.

"I don't think you're mixing business," he said.

The board voted 5-1 to accept the new lease, with Peck voting no.