Lebanon’s four state elected officials strongly condemned Gov. Tom Wolf in a letter Friday over the withholding of millions in CARES Act funding from Lebanon County, calling the move “petty tyranny.”
State Sen. Dave Arnold and state reps. Frank Ryan, Russ Diamond and Sue Helm, all Republicans, said the move was an “incredible insult” to Lebanon County residents. Wolf confirmed during a news conference Thursday that Lebanon would not receive nearly $13 million through the CARES Act and indicated it was a consequence of the county commissioner’s 2-1 vote in May to move Lebanon to the yellow phase against state orders.
“When they were saying ‘We’re not going to abide by the restrictions we’re going to make our own rules or regulations,’ … OK, then don’t come say you want something from the state when you haven’t followed the rules,” Wolf said. “There are consequences, these are the consequences.”
Wolf denied it was “retribution,” but referenced the yellow phase vote, saying while other counties made the threat, Lebanon was the only county to follow through with it.
Ryan, Diamond, Helm and Arnold said the move was a “discretionary act with improper motive,” which “may be actionable.”
“The governor is wrong, his motive is improper, and he may be in violation of provisions of the CARES Act and other federal or state laws,” the letter reads. “This is an incredible insult to the 140,000 people who have chosen to live in Lebanon County, and we are considering every available avenue of recourse to protect our constituents from his petty tyranny.”
Also on Friday, Rep. Stan Saylor of York, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, called on Wolf to reverse the “shameful act” and release the funding to Lebanon.
“This funding was appropriated by the Legislature in two pieces of legislation that the governor signed into law. He cannot simply ignore laws after he signs them,” Saylor said in a statement.
Disagreement over yellow phase resolution
After elected officials in Lebanon and other counties threatened to move themselves to the yellow phase in May,Wolf warned that those who followed through would risk losing discretionary federal stimulus funds.
In a press conference at the time, Wolf called elected officials looking to skirt the state’s reopening guidelines “cowardly” and said they are engaging in “behavior that is both selfish and unsafe.”
A spokesperson for Wolf said Thursday that “Lebanon County leadership put its business owners and residents at risk when it violated the law earlier this year by unilaterally moving the county from red to yellow in defiance of the governor’s orders deeming the county ineligible for CARES Funding.”
“The governor’s disaster mitigation orders have the force and effect of law,” spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said in an email.
In their letter, Arnold, Ryan, Diamond and Helm wrote that Wolf’s “presumption of what Lebanon County Commissioners did with their May 15 resolution is absolutely wrong.”
“The Commissioners’ resolution only applied to county-run facilities. As such, moving to yellow was actually meaningless, as local governments were exempt even under the governor’s draconian stay-at-home orders,” the letter reads.
The resolution approved by the two Republican county commissioners Bill Ames and Bob Phillips on May 15 only officially moved county operations to yellow phase guidelines. The resolution states the move is not “binding or directive on any private sector enterprise that operates within Lebanon County. Limitations on businesses still exist at the civil and state level and it is incumbent upon those businesses to know the risks, especially if subject to state regulation or licensure.”
However, Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf – who signed a letter from Lebanon’s Republican elected officials that stated Lebanon would move itself to the yellow phase – said in May that her office would not prosecute any businesses that chose to reopen to yellow phase guidelines.
“It’s not a guarantee that (businesses) won’t face issues above Lebanon County,” Phillips said during the May 15 meeting where they approved the resolution. “But this is meant for us to give our courthouse to be open and (be) an example, and also include all businesses in this that will not be prosecuted on the county level.”
Though the resolution did note the commissioners cannot move private sector businesses to the yellow phase, several elected officials encouraged businesses to reopen against state guidelines at their own risk. Ames, Phillips, Arnold, Diamond, Ryan and Graf all attended a June 5 rally at Taste of Sicily in Palmyra, a restaurant that reopened its indoor dining area after taking inspiration from the commissioners’ yellow phase resolution.
U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, who was also at the June 5 rally at Taste of Sicily, is also pushing back against Wolf.
In a letter sent to the governor Wednesday, Meuser said requirements added by the Department of Community Economic Development that counties follow all state-issued closure orders to remain eligible for the CARES funding is in “direct conflict with the legislative intent of the parameters of the County Relief Block Grant program.”
Meuser urged Wolf to release the funding to Lebanon.
“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,” Meuser wrote in the letter.
Nora Shelly can be reached at email@example.com