County commissioners learned Thursday that Lebanon County is slated to receive nearly $8.5 million in rental relief for residents unable to pay their housing bills due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A separate grant is also pending to assist people who normally live in congregant housing but who are currently living at a local hotel as a way to limit exposure to large groups of people during the global pandemic.

In both instances, the commissioners were told the programs have not been finalized and are in what was described as “hurry-up-and-wait” mode. One program will assist renters who can’t pay their landlords while the other is for those individuals who normally reside in congregant housing.

The larger of the two grants will see the county receive $8.47 million, of which $466,288 will cover administrative costs, to provide rental assistance. Payments would go directly to landlords, but if the landlord refuses to participate, then payments would go to the tenant.

Landlords or their tenants will be eligible to receive financial aid under the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which is being administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS), according to Sam Ortiz, Administrator, Community Action Partnership (CAP).

“The allocation we will be receiving will be quite large,” Ortiz said. “At the movement, we are still waiting for guidelines from DHS,” Ortiz said. “… The law was recently passed and a tentative deadline of April 1st was provided or 30 days after the passing of the law.”

Ortiz noted his agency has been contacting potential partners given the enormity of the initiative.

“It’s a very large program, as we have said, and we would like to partner,” Ortiz said. “One of these is Karen Groh (President/CEO, Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce) who has been providing very good guidance and information. We are planning to move forward with this.”

Ortiz said the program will provide up to 12 months of rental assistance with no cap and that the initiative will include up to 15 months of assistance for those individuals based on extenuating circumstances.

Commissioner William Ames said the partnership with the local chamber is a smart idea.

“We all know the record that she (Karen) left with the CARES money and I think it is wise to reach out to her,” Ames added. “You have enough administrative built into this that maybe there can be an agreement that you could help fund, because the chamber does not get much funding since they rely on memberships. But she is an excellent asset in these kinds of programs.”

Ortiz said this program has a lot less restrictions than a previous one that was administered by the Pennsylvania Housing and Finance Agency. Those restrictions led to only about half of that available funding being spent, Ortiz added.

“Since there are less restrictions for tenants and landlords, we really look forward to being able to help more people with this (new) program,” Ortiz told the commissioners.

Chief Clerk/County Administrator Jamie Wolgemuth said this will be a big undertaking for the county, just like the administration of the $12.8 million spent by the county via the federal CARES Act grant funding in 2020.

“That’s a lot to put out there, and I think it is going to be challenging, pending guidance from DHS,” Wolgemuth said. “But I think that the concerns of the clients that are going to be receiving this and the challenges, in terms of access to technology and things like that. So this is going to be a big undertaking within the six months, I think, that they are going to allow for it…It’s hurry up and wait for the moment.”

The Emergency Shelter Grant is a program that the county previously applied for last fall but did not receive any funding during the first round, according to Ortiz. The commissioners tentatively approved providing their signatures for the grant application once it is completed since they will not hold another public meeting before next week’s filing deadline.

“It is an allocation for coronavirus relief that we previously applied for in November but, as was previously stated, was not approved for a number of reasons. Some (applications) were missing documents,” Ortiz said. “But we are applying again by the February 26 deadline.”

The application would be for a 12-month contract that expires at the end of the 2021 calendar year. The application covers housing for individuals who live in shelters and similar facilities designed to accommodate numerous individuals in common settings. The grant also covers costs associated with cleaning and damages that might be caused to the room.

“The majority of the program covers hotel or motel costs because of the unavailability of shelters during the COVID era,” Ortiz said. The total grant the county is requesting is for $298,750, Ortiz noted.

Bryan Smith, Executive Director, Lebanon County Christian Ministries said there was a $20 million allocation during round one, of which $3.1 million was granted, leaving $16.9 million available for round two.

“We are continuing to work in the non-congregant setting — which is our goal at this time,” Smith said. “We are keeping all of our shelter guests in a non-congregant setting.”

After noting that between 15 to 17 clients are housed at a local hotel, Smith added that his agency and other partners are working toward providing emergency sheltering in a more- appropriate, longer-term environment. He added that this funding request is a “stop-gap measure to address housing issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic.”

“Same as last time, we are looking for one year’s worth of operational expenses to cover it,” Smith said. “The majority of it is $180,000 (of the $298,750) for the hotel expenditures.”

Concerning the coronavirus pandemic and following the news that Lancaster County is opening a vaccination site at the Park City Mall, Wolgemuth announced Lebanon County is in the planning stages of selecting a similar site for local residents. The county is addressing insurance issues with the site vendor before announcing where the site will be in Lebanon County. Additionally, the lack of an adequate supply of vaccines, as announced earlier in the week by state government officials, has bought county officials some time to iron out the insurance issue before they open a local large-scale vaccination site.

In another matter related to CAP, the organization will hand over administration of the Lebanon County Crisis Intervention program to the county’s department for Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities/Early Intervention (MH/ID/EI) as part of the 2021-2022 contract, beginning on July 1, 2021.

Holly Leahy, administrator, MH/ID/EI said the crisis intervention services contract, which has always been administered by CAP, is complex because it is funded through multiple departments, including Children and Youth, Drug and Alcohol, CAP, and her department.

Leahy said an old law dating back to 1966 mandates that the county’s MH/ID/EI administrator is directly responsible for crisis intervention and the county’s commitment to administering that program.

“So that puts a great deal of responsibility upon MH/ID/EI and it has been a little bit difficult to manage since it has not been managed through this office,” Leahy said.

While her department has program oversight, Leahy said it’s hard to obtain data and reports from partners, adding that additional scrutiny from state and federal agencies is also exacerbating the pressure on how the crisis intervention program is delivered.

“We have the fiscal staff available and able to prepare and distribute the quarterly fiscal reports and all the necessary reports that need to happen for crisis intervention,” Leahy said, adding that CAP is mostly “stuck in the middle” in trying to run the program. “MH/ID/EI does carry the biggest amount of the contract for crisis intervention.”

In other county business, the commissioners took three actions at the request of the county’s Voter Registration office.

The commissioners: certified the Democrat and Republican parties; agreed to purchase an outdoor ballot box at a cost of $997 for the delivery of mail-in and absentee ballots; and agreed to certify that the county had met the minimal expenditure requirement of $181,680 for local elections. It was noted that the county had exceeded that total easily by spending $612,836 on the last election.

After the normal meeting was adjourned, about an hour later the three commissioners participated in the Municipal Planning Organization (MPO) meeting chaired by Lebanon Mayor Sherry Capello. The county’s MPO is part of a federally mandated and federally funded transportation policy-making organization consisting of representatives from local government and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials.

The major action was approval of two Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) projects in the county for 2021. It was noted that the purpose of HSIP is to improve highway safety and to reduce deaths on local roadways.

Prescott Road’s intersection with Route 422. (Google Street View)
The view up Kimmerlings Road from Kochenderfer Road across Route 343. (Google Street View)

The first location slated for improvement is the intersection of Kochenderfer and Kimmerling roads on Route 343 in North Lebanon Township, which was noted as being situated in a challenging location.

The second project will address the shared intersection of Prescott Road and Route 422 in South Lebanon Township. This intersection has a signal that’s tethered on cables and overdue for an upgrade. There were also major concerns about the functionality of that intersection.

It was noted that these two projects were “pretty high up on the list” for approval but that a third, concerning improvements at 8th Avenue and Bowman Streets in the city, which is near property under consideration by the Altoona-based company Sheetz, was not as pressing. This item was not approved by the MPO but was placed on the back-burner for future consideration.

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...