A federal lawmaker has taken a shot at Gov. Tom Wolf for withholding grant funds from Lebanon County after county officials defied the governor’s shutdown order to help curtail the spread of COVID-19.
“I have no understanding at all, why Gov. Wolf is not interested in making things better for people. He’s interested in controversy and prolonging this problem,” U.S. Congressman Dan Meuser told LebTown. “He’s got a political agenda, and it’s disgusting.”
Meuser, whose 9th District includes Lebanon County, sent a letter dated July 15 criticizing the governor for holding back some $12.8 million in COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant Program funds entitled to Lebanon County through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
“By refusing to release the funding to Lebanon County, the Governor’s office is exceeding its authority in distributing relief funds which were designated for all Pennsylvanians by both the state and federal governments,” Meuser said in a statement issued with the letter.
The action appears to be in response to a decision by Lebanon County Commissioners to reopen the county in mid-May, despite the COVID-19 restrictions ordered by Wolf and state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine.
In a brief email to LebTown on Thursday, the governor’s press secretary Lyndsay Kensinger did not provide many specifics on the decision.
“As the governor publicly stated in early May, any county that violated state law would not receive federal stimulus funding,” she said.
She did not answer questions about who made the decision to withhold Lebanon County’s funding or if the county can do anything at this point to get the funds released.
When asked what law, specifically, the county had violated to be disqualified from funding, Kensinger replied: “The Governor’s disaster mitigation orders have the force and effect of law pursuant to section 7301(a) of the Emergency Management Services Code, 35 Pa. C.S. § 7301(a).”
A spokesman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), which administers the grant money, did not respond to a request for comment.
Meuser, in his letter, said the Wolf administration “has exceeded its authority” by withholding the funds.
The money, he said, was part of a $4.9 billion package of federal money, distributed through the CARES Act in March “to help assist in covering necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency caused by COVID-19 not previously budgeted for.”
State Act 24, signed by the governor on May 29, allocated some $625 million to the counties. The act, Meuser said, “outlines that all counties shall receive formulaic funding based upon population.” However, he said, the DCED later “added additional requirements requiring counties to follow all state-issued closure orders to guarantee eligibility.”
“This is in direct conflict with the legislative intent of the parameters of the County Relief Block Grant program,” Meuser said. He said the legislation did not provide for “additional guidelines to determine funding eligibility” from the DCED.
“Every Pennsylvanian deserves access to these federally provided funds including my constituents in Lebanon County,” he wrote to the governor. “For these reasons, I urge you to please follow the General Assembly’s legislative intent and the guidance of U.S. Department of the Treasury related to the COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant program. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.”
In a separate statement, Meuser said the governor’s decision “is not fair to hardworking Pennsylvanians, especially those in areas where COVID-19 cases remain significantly lower than in urban centers. Businesses across our state have suffered greatly from a crisis they had no part in creating. They cannot afford another prolonged shutdown. These restrictions unfortunately reflect just how out of touch the Governor is with rural Pennsylvania and that he is not pursuing a data-driven strategy to mitigate the spread of the virus.”
In an interview with LebTown, Meuser was more blunt in his assessment of the governor’s “tyrannical” action.
“Just because the commissioners voted to open outside of his orders … it’s because of that he’s withholding funds to 130,000 people in the county,” he said.
“By the governor withholding, he’s hurting people,” he added. “He’s way over his skis.”
Meuser called Wolf “irrational and immature,” and he complained that the governor is “very isolated” and didn’t reach out to his office to inform him of the decision.
“There have been 60 fatalities in Lebanon County” from COVID-19, Meuser said. “Granted, a tragedy … but 71 percent of those have been in nursing homes, where Gov. Wolf and his Secretary of Health directed those with COVID out of the hospitals and back in the nursing homes. If it hadn’t been for that, we could have had 18.”
According to a July 16 article in LebTown, the state Department of Health is reporting 51 deaths in Lebanon County as of Thursday, while county records show only 40. The DOH says there have been 37 coronavirus-linked deaths at Lebanon County nursing homes or personal care facilities to date.
“We’re going to consider every legal option possible” to release those funds, Meuser said. “This childish nonsense cannot continue.”
Lebanon County residents “don’t blame the commissioners” for the funding issue, he said. “They blame the governor. … The CARES Act was never to be used as a threat or a club.”
Meuser isn’t alone in his displeasure. Two state representatives from Lebanon County also voiced their irritation on Thursday, and the president of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce issued a plea for funds to be released.
“We implore you to reconsider this decision as Lebanon County deserves every right to provide this recovery funding as the other 66 counties in Pennsylvania,” Chamber president Karen Groh said in a letter to Wolf dated July 16.
“Sixty-six of 67 counties have received their funding and are working quickly to infuse it into their local economies, helping thousands of businesses, non-profits, municipalities, and more. Lebanon County is the only one left in Pennsylvania that has not received the money as promised by the Federal Government,” Groh wrote.
“This is an unacceptable exclusion of just one county,” her letter continues. “This money, close to $13 million, is desperately needed to help our business community continue to recover and survive the ongoing restrictions and added costs to follow CDC guidelines. Tourism, small business, non-profits, and more have been patiently waiting to apply for this grant money as announced by the state. To take that away is an unfair punishment.”
In a follow-up email to LebTown, Groh noted that Wolf said, during a Thursday afternoon press conference, that “there are consequences, and these are the consequences,” to violating an emergency declaration. He said the action wasn’t a punishment, but told county officials they shouldn’t ask for state aid “when you haven’t followed the rules.”
Other counties threatened similar actions, but only Lebanon County followed through, Wolf said.
Lebanon County’s portion of the grant money would have been used to help “small businesses, non-profits, tourism, economic development, municipalities, and more,” Groh added. “The exact amounts for each category were not yet released.”
She’s not sure if the money can be reinstated.
“It is very sad for our business community,” Groh said. “They should not be the pawns in this game.”
State Senator Dave Arnold (R-48th) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
State Rep. Russ Diamond (R-102nd) said he is aware the CARES funding is being withheld from Lebanon County.
“I cannot answer why, or what needs to happen to get the funds to the county,” he said. “I find this extremely disturbing as it is also my understanding that we are the only county in this situation.”
State Rep. Frank Ryan (R-101st) said withholding the funds violates the CARES Act and the House bill that was passed for the appropriations.
“This abuse of power is being dealt with from Congressman Meuser’s office as well as our offices in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives,” he said. “I understand Pennsylvania Senate is also assisting.”
Ryan likened the delay of funds to “Bridgegate” in 2013, when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was accused of colluding with political allies to cause massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, New Jersey, as retribution against Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich. Christie’s political standing was badly damaged in the aftermath.
That, said Ryan, “is the precise reason” why governors’ powers should be curtailed.
“All citizens regardless of the party that you belong to should be outraged by this abuse of power,” he said.
Some Lebanon County officials have been very vocal about their efforts to reject Wolf’s authority regarding COVID-19 precautions.
Since the County Commissioners’ 2-1 vote (Republicans Bill Ames and Bob Phillips in favor, Democrat Jo Ellen Litz opposed) on May 15, county District Attorney Pier Hess Graf issued a statement that she would not prosecute any businesses that defied the shutdown order, and several local Republican politicians have celebrated a Palmyra restaurant’s decision to ignore requirements for social distancing and masks.
Commissioners Phillips and Ames did not immediately respond to requests for comment, although Ames told the Lebanon Daily News it’s “very, very sad” that Wolf is “willing to punish 150,000 people … based on something that Bob Phillips and I did.”
Litz, who voted against the commissioners’ resolution in May, agreed that the Wolf’s executive order has “the force and effect of law” and should have been followed.
However, she said, the governor “also has the power to pardon people, and … I ask Governor Wolf for clemency for Lebanon County.”
“If we unite, we can help our joint constituency through some tough financial times,” Litz said in an email to LebTown. “Lebanon is not a wealthy county, and I’d rather not see every man, woman, and child in our community of over 140,000 punished for a vote by two people who tried to make amends. We need to work together to save lives and livelihoods.”
She added: “Governor Wolf has the ability to have compassion, and reverse his decision. I respectfully ask that he do so.”
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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Dave Arnold, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during previous election cycles. The Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce, the campaign of Frank Ryan, and Ames Home Services are advertisers on LebTown at present. 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.