Lebanon County Commissioners approved a new initiative at their Thursday morning meeting that will see local restaurants providing free meals for first responders and other medical personnel by using funding accrued by the county’s hotel room tax.
The commissioners convened from their respective homes via video conferencing app Zoom. The idea for the free meals came from Larry Bowman, former president of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce, who suggested that hotel tax monies could be put to good use by serving free meals to first responders and healthcare workers, while helping out local restaurants at the same time.
Lebanon Valley Family Health Services, under the direction of Kim Kreider-Umble, may also participate; as a nonprofit the agency can connect with restaurants and coordinate food orders with the beneficiaries.
Volunteers will be needed to deliver the meals.
All three commissioners, Chairman Bob Phillips, Bill Ames, and Jo Ellen Litz, approved the recommendation.
“It seldom happens that we have a wonderful opportunity like this, but here we’re rewarding the people who are working against the coronavirus every day, while utilizing some of that money to help restaurants stay in business, because we’ll want them to be there when this is over,” Ames said.
Action was taken on the recommendation to get the meals out to the healthcare professionals as soon as possible.
“They would like to move on this initiative as soon as possible,” said Jamie Wolgemuth, Lebanon County administrator and chief clerk. “They’ll be distributing meals to those on the front lines, so we’ll get this done as soon as we can.”
While the meals are intended to be a morale-booster and a way of showing gratitude, the plan also supports local restaurants, currently only allowed to sell take-out meals as a way of social distancing.
Originally, the request was for $10,000 to go toward the meals, but the commissioners believed more might be needed and bumped the contribution up to $25,000.
“We want to make this as simple as possible for Larry,” Phillips said. “We can entrust them to return any money to the tourism fund if they don’t need it all.
“This is coming at a critical time when restaurants sorely need this money,” Phillips said.
Regarding front-line workers who would be receiving the meals, Litz asked if employees such as 911 telecommunicators and county prison employees could be added to the list. Deciding who will receive free meals will likely be by consensus of the organizers of the initiative.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Lebanon County is currently tracking at 380 cases of COVID-19. According to Lebanon County Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Yocum, there have been three deaths linked to coronavirus so far in Lebanon County: one in Swatara Township, one in Bethel Township, and one in the City of Lebanon.
COVID-19 data-sharing effort between counties and first responders not approved
In another related matter, Wolgemuth presented information to the commissioners about a letter from Pennsylvania’s Department of Health advising that data on positive coronavirus cases could be provided to each county municipality so that police and ambulance crews could be informed of any positive cases in homes or hospitals where they would be responding.
It was agreed by the county’s solicitor Dave Warner and the county’s EMA Director, Bob Dowd, that this specific information could create more problems in the way of litigation than it might solve.
“First responders and police are already treating all (people they come in contact with) as possibly infected,” Warner said. “We do not believe the potential data the state could provide us, in relation to the possible liabilities, would be worth it, and this is an opinion shared by EMA directors and solicitors across the state.”
Receiving this specific data doesn’t appear to have any value and opens up the county to litigation, Warner said.
“It is our recommendation not to approve it,” Warner said.
Dowd agreed that the idea was risky, and litigation over privacy issues could possibly pull his department’s “911” funding.
“Even if the state would pressure us to sign this, it would be almost impossible to uphold our first responders to this; they are already prepared for those possibilities,” Ames said.
This issue is not limited to Lebanon County, and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has been looking into the liability implicit in the state’s offer to share data with county 911 centers.
“Counties have been requesting additional data from the Department of Health related to COVID-19 to help them effectively allocate resources and protect public health in their communities,” said County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania Executive Director Lisa Schaefer in an email to LebTown.
“In order to obtain that data, the Department is requiring that each county sign a nondisclosure agreement,” noted Schaefer.
“While counties fully understand and respect their responsibility to protect the privacy of this data, we are working through several questions on use of the data, liability for improper disclosure of data by parties other than the counties (emergency responders) and penalties associated with that liability.”
Real estate tax dates pushed back
In other business, the commissioners voted to extend the period when taxpayers are able to receive a discount on county property taxes to June 30. Prior to the vote, the deadline for a discount was April 30. The proposal had been discussed in further detail at the previous meeting of the commissioners.
The “flat period” of no discount and no penalty now goes to October 31, with penalties of 10 percent to be added after that date.
The change only affects county property taxes, and each municipality may make their own changes, said solicitor Dave Warner, who added that the change was made to help residents with financial challenges.
“With layoffs of employees, closing of businesses, and the financial markets, I think there is a need for the residents to get some relief,” Litz said.
Phillips said he hoped the municipalities would follow their lead by stretching out the discount and penalty dates for taxes.
“Some relief is better than none, so we don’t add more burdens onto people,” Phillips said.
Ames agreed to the recommendation, but wasn’t so sure it would help, explaining that paying last year’s taxes at a later date, just pushes payments closer to next year’s deadlines.
Michael Anderson, Chief Clerk of Voter Registration, reminded the commissioners that the new primary election will be on June 2, and May 18 will be the last day to register to vote.
“Mail-in ballots are all the rage and we’ve been asking individuals to vote that way,” Anderson said, adding that online voting is also generating a lot of interest.
The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot is May 26, Anderson said.
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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during the previous election cycle. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here. Additionally, David Warner has a financial interest in the ownership of LebTown’s parent company Lebanon Publishing Company. He has no involvement in editorial operations, including this article.
Davis Shaver contributed reporting to this article.
This article was updated to clarify Lebanon Valley Family Health Services’ potential involvement in the free meals program.