Bethlehem Press

Friday, January 24, 2020

County council pulls the plug on regional health department

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 by CAROL SMITH Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

The possibility of a creating a regional health department is no longer a reality. Following the action of the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners to back out of the formation of a bi-county health department, by a vote of 8-1 Northampton County Council decided the economy would not support funding this new agency.

Councilman Lamont McClure was the single vote opposed to repealing the health department legislation at council's Aug. 16 meeting.

While Councilman Bob Werner and other council members supported the concept of a department to help prevent health emergencies, the majority said the county could not afford to fund this new health service. The county faces some tough economic hurdles, with budgeting for its $27 million swaption termination fee and its $4.2 million contribution to Gracedale's 2012 budget. While non-city residents would benefit from a regional health department, the concept, which has a long history in the area, going back some 35 years, is not an economic priority.

Since 2009, the Lehigh Valley Board of Health has worked on the creation of a first in the state regional health department that would allow residents from surrounding townships and boroughs to have access to the same range of health resources as those provided by Allentown and Bethlehem's Board of Health departments.

About 50 percent of the funding for the regional health department's $9.6 million budget for its first full year of operation would have come from state funding for health departments, fees and permits, grants and private contributions. But to be eligible for these state funds through Act 315, the health department needed matching funds from both counties. For 2012, each county's contribution would have been $225,000. For 2013 to 2016, each county's share would have been $450,000.

In searching for other alternatives to provide health services, Council President John Cusick suggested the possibility of purchasing services from the Bethlehem Health Department.

In other business, by a vote of 7-2 council approved authorization of the sale of $9.3 million in bonds to finance the termination of the swap agreement, which was terminated June 22. With these 2012 federally taxable bonds and an $18 million check from the county's reserve fund, the county will be out of its 2004 swap agreement with Bank of America. The loss to the county is expected to be $11 million over the life of the bonds.

While it's an unpleasant position for the county to be in, Cusick said council needed to act. Good news is that the county's AA credit rating was maintained due to the county's low overall debt ratio.

In addition to these taxable bonds, $60.7 million in tax exempt bonds will be issued to refinance the county's 2001 $111 million in 30-year bonds.

Council's next regular meeting is at 6:30 p.m., Sept. 6 on the third floor of Northampton County Courthouse at 669 Washington St., Easton.