ALLENTOWN, Pa. -
Years of work, debate and struggle to create a bi-county health department in Lehigh and Northampton counties ended Wednesday night, when Lehigh County commissioners voted 6-2 to withdraw from the department that never went into operation.
After hearing impassioned arguments on both sides of the issue for more than 45 minutes, the majority of county commissioners did exactly what they made clear they intended to do two weeks ago when they first discussed the fate of the health department.
Only five votes were needed to withdraw and six of the nine commissioners were co-sponsors of the bill to do just that.
“Why are you doing this?” asked Alan Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley. “Why are you killing this? Are you doing it because you don’t believe we should prevent long-term health problems by spending a little bit of money? I hate to be so emotional about it, but I’m sorry, this is not right.”
“Drive a stake through the heart of this bigger government specter,” declared Julian Stolz of Emmaus, who is a member of the East Penn School Board. He told commissioners: “Most of you are Republicans. All of you ran on being fiscally responsible conservatives. Act like it. You will be held accountable or you will be rewarded for your votes tonight.”
Stolz said the “give-us-more crowd wants more government, more spending, more benefits. This is the same group that has bankrupted every level of government.” He said he represents the “we-want-less”
crowd, which wants less government, less regulation and less taxes.
Allentown resident Joseph Hilliard echoed that sentiment, telling
commissioners: “The model of yet another taxpayer-funded government program to solve problems is broken. It hasn’t worked. It doesn’t work.”
The health department, which never went into operation, would have cost each county $250,000 to $500,000 a year – assuming much more funding would come from the state.
Brad Osborne, chairman of the commissioners, said he would vote to withdraw because of the uncertainty of funding sources and future expenses. He also expressed skepticism about a bi-county health department succeeding, saying it is a huge undertaking.
Commissioners David Jones and Percy Dougherty were the only two who voted to keep the health department idea alive.
Before that vote, Dougherty made a motion to table the bill and first do a county-wide referendum so voters can decide if they will support a health department. That proposal was defeated 6-2, with only Dougherty and Jones voting to table until a referendum could be held.
Commissioner Vic Mazziotti said there already had been a form of referendum, in the last election: “Those who were in favor of the position we are taking tonight were elected by a large margin, those that were against it were defeated.”
Before the vote, Dougherty said: “It’s unfortunate that we’re taking this track tonight, not because I want to spend a lot of money – I still consider myself a fiscal conservative—but I feel we need a health department in the county. I agree we do not have the money in the budget to go forward at this time. But it’s an unwise decision to cut this completely and kill it completely. I’d like to see it remain on life support like we’ve had it on for several years, even if we’re not going to fund it.”
Dougherty also noted: “This vote tonight not only kills the health department in Lehigh County, it kills it in Northampton County also.”
Because the two counties received a license from the state to operate a joint health department, he said Northampton County will have to reapply for a license if it still wants a county health department.
In 2007, a different board of commissioners voted to authorize the establishment of a health bureau with Northampton County. A Lehigh Valley Board of Health was created nearly four years ago to develop that department.
Ilene Prokup, chair of that board, and Bob Black, vice chair, were the first to address commissioners before the vote Wednesday.
Prokup said government has a responsibility to protect citizens from health threats that are beyond their individual control. She said public health is not medical care, but prevents the need for medical care, by giving people knowledge and skills to improve their lives.
Because only Allentown and Bethlehem have health departments, Prokup said two-thirds of the residents of Lehigh and Northampton counties don’t have public health services and protection.
Black told commissioners numerous studies indicate every dollar spent on prevention yields as much as $20 in reduced health care costs. “Nine or ten dollars a year per family is not a lot to pay to protect and promote the health of our community,” he said.
Black said having an effective health department reduces sickness and preventable deaths, which would make the Lehigh Valley more productive and more competitive. “A public health department could only help our local economy at a time when it is needed the most.”
“The Lehigh Valley Partnership continues to be a strong advocate for the creation of a bi-county health bureau…and we ask that you not end it this evening ,” said Charles Marcon, president of that organization, which is a partnership of CEOs of major employers throughout the Lehigh Valley. “We recognize there are costs and there will be increased government, but we also believe a proper role of local government is providing for the welfare of all its citizens.”
Jennings named that partnership among several high-profile organizations that support the health department, including 5,000 businesses that are part of the chamber of commerce, the medical society, the United Way and the League of Women Voters. He asked
commissioners: “You think we’re all wrong?”
Although both voted against the health department, Osborne and Michael Schware commended its supporters for their hard work.
Other commissioners voting to withdraw were Mazziotti, Scott Ott, Thomas Creighton and Lisa Scheller