Lehigh Commissioners withdraw from joint health department
Lehigh County Commissioners voted 6-2 in favor of withdrawing from a joint-county health department with Northampton County at their Aug. 8 meeting in Allentown.
A bill to start a bi-county health department with Northampton County was originally signed in 2007, but the department was never put in place and the board of commissioners finally decided to kill the health department with a bill that was co-sponsored by five of the nine commissioners.
Much like he did at the last board of commissioners meeting on July 25, Commissioner Percy Dougherty urged the board to table the bill instead of withdrawing from the joint health department outright.
"I feel it's a bad economic time to go forward, but I think it's an unwise decision to cut this completely," Dougherty said. "I'd like to see it remain on life support like we've had for several years, even if we're not going to fund it. It was very difficult to get the license, especially a bi-county license. By pulling out, if Northampton decides to go forward with a health department, they're going to have to reapply for a license. So this bill does not only kill the health department in Lehigh County, it kills it in Northampton County also."
Dougherty made a motion to table the bill, which was seconded by Commissioner David Jones, but the motion was immediately voted down by the other six members of the board who were present.
Commissioner Chairman Brad Osborne, who was one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said that his reasons for withdrawing from the health department went beyond fiscal considerations. Osborne said that the bi-county health department initiative is "as much a study of organizational structure and culture as it is about the cost and benefits of a public health program.
"This is essentially a merger and integration project," Osborne said. "How do you take two government entities like Northampton and Lehigh counties, who have had 39 different elected county officials in the last five years, integrate two existing public health departments and expand into outlying municipalities, including a major city, to serve the two counties with one vision and one service? It's a huge undertaking and I think our experience along the way has proven that this route is cumbersome, fragile, and the results are not likely to change by waiting."
Osborne also said that he is personally willing to invest his time to help work with others in the community to create an alternative, more focused way to help prepare the county for the "most threatening pieces of public disasters."
Commissioners Osborne, Scott Ott, Michael Schware, Lisa Scheller, Vic Mazziotti and Thomas C. Creighton III all voted in favor of withdrawing from the joint health department. Dougherty and David S. Jones were the only commissioners to vote against the bill. Commissioner Dan McCarthy was not present at the meeting.
The next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 22.