By Chris Coyle, James Mentzer, Joshua Groh, Davis Shaver, and Tom Knapp
Lebanon County Commissioner William E. Ames Jr. died on Tuesday, Dec. 28, after being hospitalized for COVID-19 at WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital in Lebanon. He was 81.
Ames is survived by his wife, Josephine C. Ames.
The Republican was first elected a commissioner in November 2011, and he was re-elected twice. His current four-year term would have expired in 2024.
Ames had announced at a commissioners’ meeting on Thursday, Dec. 16, that he had contracted the virus.
It is not known whether Ames was vaccinated, and WellSpan does not break out COVID-related deaths by vaccination status.
Early life and teaching career
Born in Hummelstown, Ames was a graduate of Hershey High School, Hershey Junior College, which later merged with Harrisburg Area Community College, and Millersville State College, where in 1966 he received a bachelor’s degree in industrial arts, with honors.
While Ames was more recently associated with management positions in the public and private sectors, he represented his fellow rank-and-file teachers in the 1980s as president of the Hershey Education Association, negotiating the union’s contracts with the Derry Township school board.
In 1964, while a student, Ames reportedly was one of the leaders of a protest against the merger of Hershey Junior College with HACC, which included a “funeral parade” through the streets of Hershey. According to the Lebanon Daily News on April 8, 1964, an “estimated 250 students and alumni participated in the demonstration that included about 60 cars and a hearse. The demonstration was peaceful, but one driver reportedly received a traffic violation citation for going through a red light.”
Ames taught industrial arts in the Derry Township School District for nearly 30 years, retiring in 1996. He also coached track and wrestling in the district.
Second career as local business owner
In 1989, Ames joined his wife, Josie, to operate Ames Services Ltd., successor to the successful residential cleaning business Josie had started two years earlier. The business grew over the years into a full-service industrial and commercial building maintenance service.
They sold their business in 2011 to Josie’s son, Mark Cheyney, who continues to operate it as Ames Janitorial Services.
In January 2006, Ames and his wife co-chaired the newly founded Palmyra Area Business Association (PABA). He told the Lebanon Daily News “over the past two years, a number of businesses in the borough have closed, and the group hopes to reverse that trend.” PABA now has over 50 member businesses.
Third act in public service for county
Ames’ public service career began with his election to the South Londonderry Township board of supervisors in May 2005. He served the township until his election as a county commissioner in 2011.
Although fiscally conservative, Ames also had a track record of supporting major projects he believed were in the interest of Lebanon County residents.
One late example of this is the decision to construct a new 911 Center, which, at roughly $40 million, is believed to be the most expensive project in the county’s history. Ames said numerous times at public meetings the project was necessary to ensure the welfare of the county’s 143,000-plus citizens as well as future generations of Lebanon Countians.
“We know the existing 911 Center has serious issues and can not meet the need,” said Ames. “So what better reason to raise taxes than public safety. A great part of what we are going to have to do here is based on public safety needs and meeting those needs in the county.”
Ames never wavered in his support for a new center – even after he and Commissioner Chairman Robert Phillips, both Republicans, were presented a letter opposing a proposed 18-percent tax increase in the 2022 budget. The letter was signed by 65 members of the county’s Republican Party.
Construction costs associated with the 911 Center, along with the need to upgrade Emergency Management Services’ outdated radio equipment, were cited as two of several reasons the commissioners planned to raise taxes for the first time since 2016.
“They’d rather have the big headline splash and, you know, make a big event here at the meeting and the media play,” said Ames via telephone at the Dec. 16 commissioners’ meeting about the letter. “I’m not sure that that’s the best way to accomplish what’s best for Lebanon County. I realize I haven’t always been on the money, spot on, with what people feel we need to do for Lebanon County, but I believe this board and Commissioner (Jo Ellen) Litz have done a good job of managing.”
Ames added during his comments that the commissioners “have a responsibility to provide for the health and safety of the residents of Lebanon County.” Not just in this instance, but over the course of his career, Ames’ demonstrated a willingness to endure intra-party conflict over his convictions.
In May 2020, Ames and Phillips voted to approve a non-binding resolution that preemptively shifted the county into the “yellow phase” of Wolf’s phased plan to reopen the state for business after an April 15 order that shuttered non-life-sustaining businesses in an attempt to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the conversations leading to the vote, Ames said that the county needed to return to work in an expanded way and “gradually ramp up while taking all possible safety precautions.” The move received mixed reactions split along party lines at the time, and resurfaced as a major issue over the summer when Wolf used the go-yellow vote as basis to withhold $12.8 million in CARES Act funding from the county.
Ames was cited in media reports as saying it was “very, very sad” that Wolf is “willing to punish 150,000 people … based on something that Bob Phillips and I did.”
Wolf’s move was characterized by the GOP as political retribution, with Lebanon County Democrats also joining in to ask Wolf to overlook the “the open defiance, vengeful attacks and attempts to undermine our state government’s constitution” and release the funding “so that our small businesses and organizations can receive the funding that they need with an assurance that it will go to the business and individuals that most truly need the help.”
The Democrats’ statement hinted at the fact that, with the resolution having had limited legal weight, it’s possible that Wolf was further spurred into the action over local Republican support of businesses like Taste of Sicily, which operated in open defiance of state orders.
A county lawsuit over the CARES Act funding was settled in August 2020. The county received all $12.8 million of the CARES Act request in exchange for following a strict funding breakdown that saw $2.8 million allocated to a mask campaign for the local market.
Ames was the only commissioner to not sign the settlement agreement and wrote to LebTown that he wanted the lawsuit to continue, citing the county’s case as being on “strong legal ground.” He also noted in his letter his opposition to spending $2.8 million on a mask campaign, and the inability of the county to recoup taxpayer’s money spent by the county in its fight against the pandemic.
Even after the lawsuit was settled, Ames consistently voted no at public meetings to approve CARES funding expenditures, noting that he was not in opposition to helping county citizens but against the state-mandated Mask Up campaign.
“That is a lot of money that could be better spent on other needs,” wrote Ames about the mask campaign. “Furthermore, Lebanon County’s citizens are more than capable of figuring out for themselves whether masks are useful or not.”
Although Ames did not outright endorse mask wearing as a public health measure when LebTown queried local politicians on the subject in June 2020, he did recommend that the public wear masks to polling places and also said at the time that the go-yellow vote was taken with the understanding that CDC guidelines would be followed by “everyone,” including mask wearing and social distancing.
Although Ames initially opposed the county’s agreement with WellSpan for operation of a mass vaccination site in the former Kmart/future Target, citing concerns about possible liability for the county if someone were to get sick from the vaccine, he later lauded the effort and said that he didn’t think the county could have done any better.
Another major decision during Ames’ tenure as a commissioner was the 2014 vote to sell Cedar Haven to a private, for-profit business.
The 2-1 vote (Ames and Phillips voted yes, Litz no) to sell the county-owned facility occurred because Cedar Haven was losing money, facing pension liabilities, and dealing with rising operating costs while receiving decreasing government reimbursements.
Five years after deciding to sell, Ames and Phillips said they were generally pleased with the quality of care at Cedar Haven and the improvement of the county’s financial standing.
Ames also stressed that private owners are able to focus on running homes and caring for patients, and was satisfied that patient care has not suffered. “The government can’t run anything,” he told LebTown in an article published on July 25, 2019.
The new private operators of Cedar Haven later filed for bankruptcy relief, prompting fears by some that the facility would be closed and residents put on the street. However, they have continued to operate the facility without change under federal bankruptcy court supervision while a new owner is being sought.
As a commissioner, Ames served as the county Elections Board chairman, including in 2020 during the controversy that surrounded the presidential election.
As chairman, Ames refuted post-election requests to revisit local election results after calls by locally elected state lawmakers to do so.
Ames stood firm in his support of Michael Anderson, then-director of the Bureau of Elections/Voter Registration, and his staff in the face of unsupported charges of statewide election irregularities from local Pennsylvania General Assembly members, state Reps. Russ Diamond and Frank Ryan.
During a public meeting of the county’s Election Committee on Nov. 19, 2020, Ames said “the handling and computation of votes by the county’s Bureau of Elections was impeccable and above reproach.”
Ames also repeatedly backed the work of Anderson and his staff during the 2020 election cycle. Ames’ praise, however, wasn’t limited to county election officials. Whenever discussions centered around the work of county employees, Ames was quick to praise the work they performed on behalf of local citizens.
“We’ve already given praise but I want to continue to do that not just for Michael but his entire staff and the league of volunteers, watching them over the course of this election, Election Day and yesterday, performance and the job was outstanding, and we certainly want to thank you for that, Michael,” Ames said at the Nov. 5, 2020, commissioner’s meeting.
Ceaseless booster for county
Perhaps Ames’ ultimate legacy as a commissioner was his deep-seated love for all things Lebanon County.
At public meetings, he was always interested to hear funding requests, via the county’s hotel tax fund, to support local organizations working to promote Lebanon County – whether it be the county fair, Hinkelfest Chicken Festival in Fredericksburg or any of the other many events that promote Lebanon County as a tourist destination.
The county’s Farmland Preservation program was near and dear to his heart and, even as commissioner, Ames remained an active volunteer with the Campbelltown Community Alliance, participating in cleanup days and taking part in the unveiling of a Campbelltown sign this fall.
Ames was also instrumental in the Feeding the Frontliners project in 2020, which saw the Hotel Tax used to bolster local restaurants in a time of dire need, feeding frontline workers who were also undergoing extreme stress in the face of COVID-19.
Friends, colleagues mourn loss
As news broke of Ames’ passing, local leaders shared their remembrances of the longtime public servant.
“Often, the job of a County Commissioner involves making the best decisions from very challenging, and sometimes impossible, circumstances,” said chief clerk and county administrator Jamie Wolgemuth via email to LebTown reacting on Ames’ death. “Bill gave everything thought and consideration, and had the wisdom and courage to change his mind if warranted.”
“Bill was a wonderful partner of high intellect and high energy,” said Phillips. “A fearless advocate for Lebanon County.”
Phillips added that Ames was an Eagle Scout who never forgot his pledge.
“Bill was a straight shooter,” said Litz. “You never had to guess where he stood.”
Litz said she appreciated that quality in Ames.
“What I admired most was his love and fierce defense of Josie, his wife,” she said, noting his habit of referring to her as “my bride.”
State Sen. Chris Gebhard (R-48) also mourned Ames’ passing in a release, calling him a friend and mentor. “(Ames) was a dedicated public servant, initially as South Londonderry Township supervisor and then as a Lebanon County commissioner,” said Gebhard.
“Above all, I know Bill was truly dedicated to helping his friends, neighbors and community,” said Gebhard. “He will be truly missed. Please keep Commissioner Ames and his family in your thoughts and prayers during these trying times.”
Court to appoint replacement
Pennsylvania law requires the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas to appoint a person of the same party affiliation to fill Ames’ unexpired term. It does not set a time limit to do so.
Funeral arrangements in progress
In a press release Wednesday, Dec. 29, Lebanon County officials confirmed Ames’ passing from COVID-19 complications. Funeral arrangements are being carried out by Rothermel-Finkenbinder Funeral Home. A funeral service will be held at the funeral home on Thursday, Jan. 6, at 11 a.m. with Lieutenant Marlon Rodriguez of the Salvation Army officiating. Burial will follow at Gravel Hill Cemetery in Palmyra. Family and friends are invited to viewings on Wednesday, Jan. 5, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and on Thursday, Jan. 6, from 10 a.m. until the service.
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This article was updated after publication with funeral details.