LEHIGH COUNTY COMMISSIONERS
Lehigh County Commissioners defeated, by a vote of 4–5, a major step in getting the renovation of the Cedarbrook Senior Care and Rehabilitation facility started at its May 8 meeting. Commissioners gave a first reading to a resolution that “indicates [commissioner’s] support for a facility plan which meets the facility standards set forth by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.”
The resolution would have authorized county personnel “to take all such further action including any necessary transfer of funds, and to execute additional documents” as appropriate to carry out the project.
“We will have a five-star facility out there,” Commissioner Dr. Percy Dougherty said. “Not only in terms of the services, but the physical plant. This will get us off of the eight ball and move us forward in terms of getting something done at Cedarbrook.”
Commissioner Geoff Brace supported the resolution, but cautioned that “anyone who supports it should be prepared to enact legislation to support Cedarbrook’s future operations.”
The resolution, No. 2019-3 sponsored by Republican Commissioners Amanda Holt and Dougherty was defeated 4–5 with four “yes” votes by Brace, Dougherty, Holt and Amy Zanelli. The five “no” votes were Nathan Brown, Marc Grammes, Dan Hartzell, Marty Nothstein and Brad Osborne.
A second Cedarbrook-related resolution (No. 2019-34) faired better. Its intent “is to indicate the Board of Commissioner’s commitment to the Phase One renovation of Cedarbrook Senior Care and Rehabilitation while identifying other major financial issues currently facing the County of Lehigh.”
Before going to a vote, commissioners voted to strip out language revealing how much the approved expenditures would affect tax rate millage.
It provides $34 million for “miscellaneous capital projects” and $47 million for Cedarbrook rehabilitation costs. Brown cautioned that once the county decides to go through with this project, “there comes a cost. And that cost is going to be a tax increase somewhere down the line either this year or next year.”
In discussion of the resolution, Nothstein said there will be a $6.1 million “structural deficit” in the fiscal year 2019 year-end projection. “That needs to be fixed,” Nothstein said.
Nothstein also characterized the million dollar numbers in the resolution as being “random numbers” being “thrown around.” He said, “We have to be smart with this.”
This drew a sharp rebuke from Zanelli. “I’m a little surprised by your comment because this isn’t new. You voted two years ago to have this project. We had an opportunity at our last budget hearing to not have the deficit, but now we’re up here complaining that we have a deficit that you voted to have. It’s not appropriate.
“I’m very happy the board is going to start actually doing work toward investments the board promised the people we would do. This deficit is the fault of the people sitting right at this table,” Zanelli said, wrapping up her comments.
She was referring to the budget vote last year when Republican commissioners rejected County Executive Phillips Armstrong’s 2019 budget.
Brace also challenged part of Nothstein’s argument. “These are not random numbers plucked out of the sky.”
“Commissioner Osborne has done a magnificent job of articulating the financial picture that we have,” Brace said.
Holt said she “respectfully disagrees with some of the comments made” and expressed “huge disappointment” in the resolution. “This is a huge step backwards. This leaves the people in D-Wing with no guarantee that they will not have communal bathrooms in the future.”
The resolution passed 8–1 with Holt casting the “no” vote.
Commissioners also approved the internal transfer of almost $5 million from the stabilization fund to buy voting systems, upgrade the courthouse and buy a Bear Cat armored police vehicle.
Also getting first reading approval was a professional services contract with Geographit, a division of EBA Engineering, Inc., to assist Lehigh County with implementing a cloud-hosted regional 9-1-1 data standardization portal.
Lehigh County Commissioners confirmed Jeffery B. Matzkin to the Lehigh Northampton Airport Authority. Kelly Kozik, the nominee for director of human resources, was withdrawn by the administration with no reason given.
Numerous staffers from the Lehigh County Human Services Department again attended the meeting. The department employees have been pressing the commissioners to increase staffing for the department which has responsibility for child welfare in the county. They have been working without a contract with the county since January.
“When tragedy strikes – and by tragedy, I mean when someone dies – there will be a public outcry,” SEIU 668 Shop Steward Frank Gerlach said, speaking to the commissioners. He said people will start asking questions and pointing fingers.
“It’s very easy to point a finger at a worker and make them a scapegoat. And that has happened.
“For three and half years we have built a very long, public, documented paper trail of our effort to bring these needs to light,” Gerlach said. When it happens, the responsibility will lie where it belongs - with administrators and elected officials.
“We’re ringing the bell; we need the help. It’s not hyperbole. It’s the reality of what we deal with every day.”
In other business, Nothstein offered a letter of support for Sheriff Joe Hanna’s effort to get state funding with the support of state Sen. Pat Browne, R-16th, for the sheriff’s department’s education and training program.
“Each deputy sheriff is required to complete 20 hours of training every two years,” Hanna said. He said training expenses are reimbursable by the state and new legislation is pending that will make reimbursement easier. Hanna said currently Lehigh County is 10th on a list of counties the state owes reimbursement.
“I will be delivering your letter of support as well as my letter of support to Sen. Browne,” Nothstein said.