Lebanon Co. commissioner calls Wolf’s mandated $2.8M facemask campaign a ‘waste’

Justin Henry//August 19, 2020

Lebanon Co. commissioner calls Wolf’s mandated $2.8M facemask campaign a ‘waste’

Justin Henry//August 19, 2020

A Lebanon County commissioner who refused to sign the settlement county officials reached with Gov. Tom Wolf to secure $12.8 million in CARES Act funds rebuked the deal, arguing that the county should have pressed the lawsuit further instead of capitulating to the state’s spending requirements.

“I want to state for the record that I did not support or sign the settlement agreement between the governor and Lebanon County,” Commissioner Bill Ames said in a Facebook post this week.

The county’s share of the federal stimulus aid had been withheld by Wolf, a Democrat, after local leaders acted to move Lebanon County ahead of the state’s phased-in reopening plan in May. Lebanon County officials sued Wolf to retrieve the funds intended to support businesses and municipalities. The dispute was resolved last week when the state agreed to give Lebanon County its share if it committed $2.8 million to a campaign encouraging people to wear masks, among other provisions.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Bob Phillips and Secretary Jo Ellen Litz signed the agreement on behalf of the county on Friday, agreeing to forfeit block grant funds if the county violates any part of the settlement. But Ames, a Republican, argued that the county should have pressed the lawsuit further.

“The county’s solicitor assured the commissioners that our suit against the governor to secure $12.8 million in CARES funding was on solid legal ground, and I thought it best to pursue the case in court,” Ames said.

Ames objected to the settlement’s requirement of the county to “waste” $2.8 million on an education campaign on the efficacy of mask-wearing. Such a sum of money could be better spent on other needs, he said, adding that Lebanon County citizens are “more than capable of figuring out for themselves whether masks are useful or not.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Wolf defended the requirement, pointing to health experts and academic research that “has made it clear that universal masking prevents the spread of the disease.”

“By doing everything we can to suppress the spread, we can help our businesses succeed and our communities stay safe,” the spokesperson said in an email statement. “We need to do everything we can to make sure we have greater adoption of commonsense measures like masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Ames also criticized the requirement that the county not use CARES money to reimburse its own shortfalls from the pandemic. County leaders, he said, are prevented from reimbursing taxpayers for tax funds routed to coronavirus response measures.

In addition to the $2.8 million reserved for mask-wearing promotion, the deal includes specific requirements for how the total $12.8 million is to be used: $1 million to municipal governments and school districts, $3 million in small business grants and personal protective equipment (PPE) distribution, $2.25 million in grants and PPE to tourism businesses, $2 million in grants to nonprofits, $1.5 million for the county economic development corporation and county promotion efforts and $250,000 for behavioral health costs.

The settlement requires all CARES funding recipients to be in compliance with the governor’s orders, placing at risk the eligibility of businesses who openly defied the state’s mandated closures.

A spokesperson for Gov. Wolf’s office declined to comment about the settlement negotiations. She said “any business that violated the governor or Secretary of Health’s order is not eligible to receive any CARES dollars in Lebanon County or any county.”

“It’s also important to note that the county grant funding is not the only CARES Act funding that Lebanon County is receiving,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “More than $50 million in CARES Act dollars have been allocated to Lebanon County since the beginning of the pandemic outside of the county block grant program.”

In a commentary published by local media outlets this week, including Central Penn Business Journal, Karen Groh, president and CEO of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the lawsuit would have delayed the allocation of the money as the December spending deadline draws near.

“Negotiating an agreement was presumably the best way to resolve the issue as quickly as possible, allowing the money to get into our community now and not in three or four months,” Groh said. “Negotiations mean concessions are often made for the greater good. We are already two months behind the other 66 counties of Pennsylvania and many of our businesses and non-profits are feeling it.”

Groh said, citing her background in marketing, $2.8 million was a “huge campaign for the size of our county.” But Groh suggested the funds have the potential to support many local businesses in its production, from videographers to graphic designers and ad writers.

“It is not only a valid reminder to wear a mask but also as a huge influx of money into our local economy,” Groh said.