Whether they like it or not, Lebanon County commissioners will have to soon decide how to spend $2.8 million on a universal mask-wearing campaign as part of the settlement of their lawsuit against Gov. Tom Wolf over the withholding of CARES Act funding to the county.
The settlement, announced Friday, gives Lebanon its $12.8 million under the CARES Act County Block Grant Program, but lays out how the money must be spent.The $2.8 million allocated to a “campaign to promote universal mask-wearing,” has been the subject of criticism from many, including Lebanon state reps. Frank Ryan, Russ Diamond and Sue Helm and state Sen. Dave Arnold, who said Friday it “further promote(s) the Governor’s agenda rather than being used to help our residents.”
The big number caught the eyes of many peoples — the only category with more allocated in the settlement was to small business grants and PPE distribution. As Diamond said in a Facebook post about the settlement Friday: “I don’t even know how you’d spend $2.8 million to promote anything in Lebanon County.”
Citing the settlement, a spokesperson for Wolf declined to answer questions about why $2.8 million was the amount determined for the campaign.
“We need to do everything we can to make sure we have greater adoption of commonsense measures like masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said.
Some also criticized the settlement for only allocating $250,000 to behavioral health/substance use/suicide prevention treatment cost. County administrator Jamie Wolgemuth clarified they consulted with the county departments that handle those issues about what their funding needs from the block grant might be.
“This CARES grant isn’t the only source of funds to offset the effects of COVID in Lebanon County,” Wolgemuth said.
Kensinger said more than $50 million from the CARES Act outside of the county block grant program has been directed to Lebanon County entities.
Commissioners on mask campaign
Commissioners Jo Ellen Litz and Bob Phillips signed the settlement, while Commissioner Bill Ames did not, releasing a statement saying he disagreed with the terms.
In an interview Monday, Ames said while he wears a mask when it is required, he thinks it is “overrated” and should be a personal decision, and questioned the efficacy of an awareness campaign.
“How many times can you say ‘wash your hands, wear your mask,’?” Ames said. “Is there anyone in Lebanon who hasn’t heard that a hundred times, a thousand times? Do you think spending $2.8 million on a mask campaign, how many people are going to be convinced by that?”
All three commissioners said they will work to keep the $2.8 million in Lebanon by using county businesses and firms. Litz said she wants to make “lemonade out of lemons.”
“We can complain about it, but that’s not productive. We have to come together at this time because we don’t want to jeopardize the funding,” Litz said. “In the end the $2.8 million isn’t going anywhere if we spend the money in Lebanon. It’s still going to benefit Lebanon County businesses.”
Beyond keeping “every penny” of the $2.8 million in Lebanon, Phillips said the money can be used to support businesses that might not be eligible for other grants given through the CARES Act.
Despite criticism from many for settling the lawsuit rather than going to court, Phillips said he was concerned about the delay a courtroom battle would be in getting the funding to businesses and nonprofits in need — and that’s assuming the county would have won.
“Everyone tells me that this is a slam dunk, but I’ve … been around long enough to know there really isn’t such a thing,” Phillips said. “When I saw it was the full funding, I figured we can be creative and still comply with the full guidelines of the agreement.”
Wolgemuth said Monday the county expects to receive the funds from the Department of Community and Economic Development later this week, and will work to implement an application process for small businesses or nonprofits eligible for some of the grant money.
The county commissioners will likely work with one or more firms on the campaign, Wolgemuth said, but exactly where the $2.8 million will be going or what shape the campaign will take has yet to be figured out.
Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO Karen Groh said she consulted on the application process for the grants to help speed up the process in case the county were to receive the funds.
Phillips said he expects they will start figuring out the process at their meeting Wednesday, but that he hopes to get the funds out quickly.
“We know that time is of the essence to get this money into businesses,” Phillips said.
Nora Shelly can be reached at 717-454-7817 or email@example.com