Federal guidance, local contribution needed for Lancaster County to accelerate use of COVID-19 relief funds [editorial] | Our opinion
THE PROBLEM: The Lancaster County Council of Commissioners approved a 2022 budget of $ 168.7 million on Dec. 15 with a 2-1 vote that saw Republicans Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino vote in favor and the Democrat Craig Lehman oppose it. Lehman, who said it was the first time he had voted against the budget plan in 13 years as commissioner, announced two days later that he would step down on January 7, even though his term expires in 2023. Regarding the 2022 county budget, TNL | LancasterOnline’s Gillian McGoldrick reported in the Lancaster Watchdog on December 19 that âthe plan does not contain details of how the county will spend the $ 106 million it receives under the American Rescue Plan Act. â¦ So far, county leaders have only tabled plans for a small fraction of the amount.
It is unfortunate that Commissioner Lehman chose not to complete his term. We know he was often 2-1 votes short, and that must have been frustrating. But a key aspect of good governance involves bringing different perspectives to the discussions, in order to ensure a level of representation for all constituents. To that end, Lehman’s role on the board was difficult but necessary.
In a letter published in LNP last Wednesday, Mary Theresa Webb of West Lampeter Township applauded some of Lehman’s priorities over the years.
“(Lehman) spoke about the need to preserve farmland in Lancaster County due to the growing takeover of this land by developers,” she wrote. “He has also been a proponent of reducing homelessness, the Lancaster County Drug Court program and the idea of ââcreating a county public health unit.”
This editorial board also remains a strong supporter of the creation of a county health department, so we wish Lehman had persuaded Parsons and / or D’Agostino to come to an agreement on the matter. The public health advisory board that D’Agostino is still working to put in place is a poor substitute for a full-fledged health service and is insufficient to deal with the immediate, ongoing and future health threats in Lancaster County .
The county’s progress towards allocating about $ 106 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act relief funds to local areas in need as the pandemic continues has also been insufficient. People here are still dying from COVID-19; health care systems have been pushed to the brink as the highly transmissible variant of omicron spreads at breakneck speed; local businesses continue to do their utmost to stay afloat; and the most vulnerable members of our community face an intimidating second winter from this pandemic.
Regarding the mostly unspent relief funds, we wrote this on August 8: âWe certainly know that some residents of the county continue to fight this pandemic. We hope that this chance to make their lives – and this county – better is not wasted. “
That was almost five months ago. We’re about to enter 2022, and the above passage remains troublingly precise.
We have more clarity, however, on one of the reasons for the persistent delay. Like TNL | LancasterOnline’s McGoldrick reported on Dec. 19 that Parsons and D’Agostino “say they’re waiting for advice from the federal government on the types of projects the money can be spent on.”
And Lancaster County is not alone in this regard.
âNot just the county – every town, every township, every borough – got these funds,â Parsons said in a meeting this month. “They are waiting for all the final advice on them.”
Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the Pennsylvania County Commissioners Association, concurred.
“The general feeling in our counties is that there are a few things they are looking to make sure they are using their funds in the most efficient way possible,” she told McGoldrick. âYou have 67 counties with 67 different sets of needs to really dig into their communities and put those dollars where they can be most useful. “
It is incredibly frustrating. The US Treasury must finalize and clarify its rules on relief funds, so that local governments don’t make unintentional missteps that could later cost taxpayers.
There cannot be any additional delay. This pandemic has repeatedly shown the importance of a rapid response. President Joe Biden’s speech to the nation last Tuesday on COVID-19 and the rise of the omicron variant was strong and necessary – filled with immediate actions such as free home test kits and federal resources for overburdened hospitals. But to govern means to be multitasking, and Biden must urge the U.S. Treasury to act faster to clarify the rules for relief funds.
But that doesn’t leave Lancaster County Commissioners completely off the hook.
As McGoldrick also noted, âThe interim set of guidelines established by the US Treasury indicate that the funds (American Rescue Plan) can be used for rent relief, small business grants or improvement or l expansion of broadband Internet access and water and sewage systems. Nothing prevents counties or municipalities from spending on these types of projects now. “
Within those sectors, we believe it is possible for Parsons and D’Agostino to target spending that would put Lancaster County in the best possible position for a post-pandemic recovery.
And they don’t have to figure it all out on their own. We are stunned that months have passed without Commissioners formally seeking public input on the use of relief funds.
Lehman asked his colleagues to create a citizen engagement process in July, but said the request was ignored, McGoldrick reported. It’s not hard to imagine how this kind of continued frustration contributed to a tipping point and Lehman’s resignation.
Indeed, frustration abounds.
âThe money (from the US bailout) was specifically intended for communities in this country to help people recover from COVID,â Eliza Booth, a leader of the progressive activist group Lancaster Stands Up | LancasterOnline in an interview this month. âThere are still a lot of working families who still can’t pay their rent, the list goes on and on. I think this money should go to the workers in Lancaster County. “
Of course, the money should be used for something other than a savings account. There are real needs that must be met.
We need to get some clarification from the US Treasury on how the relief funds can be spent. Parsons and D’Agostino must embrace Lehman’s suggestion to actively seek ideas from community leaders and the public on targeting funds. And more of the relief funds must be deployed quickly. The residents and businesses of the county depend on it.