Lebanon County wants its money.
The county government is petitioning the Commonwealth Court to order Gov. Tom Wolf to release $12.8 million in CARES Act funding being withheld.
The county filed suit Wednesday morning over the matter, just days after Wolf’s decision to not release the funding through the County Relief Block Grant program became public.
Wolf confirmed during a news conference last week that Lebanon would not receive nearly $13 million through the CARES Act and indicated it was a consequence of the county commissioners’ 2-1 vote in May to move Lebanon to the yellow phase of reopening against state orders.
During the news conference last week, Wolf denied it was “retribution,” but referenced the yellow phase vote, saying while other counties made the threat, Lebanon was the only county to follow through with it.
“When they were saying ‘We’re not going to abide by the restrictions we’re going to make our own rules or regulations,’ … OK, then don’t come say you want something from the state when you haven’t followed the rules,” Wolf said last week. “There are consequences, these are the consequences.”
The CARES Act is intended to help with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. County administrator Jamie Wolgemuth said last week that the money the county is looking for can go toward acquiring personal protective equipment, helping small businesses or those affected by the decline in tourism or providing grant assistance to local non-profits.
The suit states that every day Wolf does not release the money “results in irreparable harm to the County of Lebanon, its economy, residents, businesses and non-profit entities.”
The governor’s office declined comment on the lawsuit Wednesday, but during a news conference Tuesday, Wolf said they would wait on a court ruling after a reporter asked about a potential suit.
“66 counties went along with all the orders and it actually worked in Pennsylvania. One county chose not to, they apparently didn’t feel they need the money at that point, so I think we’ll see what the court’s ruling is,” Wolf said.
Wolgemuth declined comment beyond the lawsuit. County solicitor Dave Warner said they planned to file a petition for expedited review in court to fasttrack the suit.
What the county is arguing
Lebanon is arguing that Wolf has not complied with Act 24, which is legislation that provides counties with block grants through the CARES Act.
The lawsuit takes issue with a provision added by the state requiring counties follow orders and regulations related to the COVID-19 pandemic to be eligible for the CARES Act funding as reasoning for withholding the funds.
A resolution approved by the two Republican county commissioners, Bill Ames and Bob Phillips, on May 15, officially moved just county operations to yellow phase guidelines.
The resolution stated that the move was not “binding or directive on any private sector enterprise that operates within Lebanon County. Limitations on businesses still exist at the civil and state level and it is incumbent upon those businesses to know the risks, especially if subject to state regulation or licensure.” Several Lebanon elected officials also encouraged businesses to reopen against state health guidelines.
Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf – who signed a letter from Lebanon’s Republican elected officials that stated Lebanon would move itself to the yellow phase – said in May that her office would not prosecute any businesses that chose to reopen to yellow phase guidelines.
“It’s not a guarantee that (businesses) won’t face issues above Lebanon County,” Phillips said during the May 15 meeting where they approved the resolution. “But this is meant for us to give our courthouse to be open and (be) an example, and also include all businesses in this that will not be prosecuted on the county level.”
After elected officials in Lebanon and other counties threatened to move themselves to the yellow phase in May, Wolf warned days before the commissioners’ vote that those who followed through would risk losing discretionary federal stimulus funds.
A spokesperson for Wolf said last week that “Lebanon County leadership put its business owners and residents at risk when it violated the law earlier this year by unilaterally moving the county from red to yellow in defiance of the governor’s orders deeming the county ineligible for CARES Funding.”
“The governor’s disaster mitigation orders have the force and effect of law,” spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said in an email.
In the suit filed this week, Lebanon County is arguing that the eligibility requirements added by the suit are a “gross abuse of power and not supported by the Emergency Powers Act.”
“Governor Wolf’s refusal to release Act 24’s designated funds to the County of Lebanon, effectively consolidates a complete legislative power in the executive branch during a declared state of emergency with no check or limit by the legislature, which fundamentally flies in the face of Pennsylvania’s system of government, creating a de-facto King with the ability to revoke, amend, or enact any provision of any legislation passed through the bicameral legislature and presented to and signed by himself at his own whim,” the suit reads.