Lancaster City Hall 2018 (SP)

Lancaster City Council is officially weighing in on Lancaster County’s lack of a health department.

Council members at a Monday committee meeting considered a resolution supporting the creation of a county health department and moved the resolution out of committee and onto council’s April 13 agenda.

The Manheim Township Board of Commissioners passed a similar resolution last month and then sent it to every school district and municipality in Lancaster County, urging them to do the same.

Lancaster City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El said he asked the city clerk to draft a resolution similar to Manheim Township’s but with some adjustments. Those included adding a reference to a study conducted by Franklin & Marshall College, which was partially funded by the United Way of Lancaster County and indicated strong support for a public health department.

“I’m looking to move this forward to next Tuesday and add our voice to the chorus of voices acknowledging that Lancaster County residents do want a public health department not just to respond to the issues presented by COVID-19 but to the myriad of health tasks which are present in our county,” Smith-Wade-El said. He added those include food inspections and lead paint concerns.

About the poll

The poll referenced in the resolution has received some criticism — including from Commissioner Josh Parsons, chair of the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners. During an hourlong interview with LNP | LancasterOnline reporters last month, Parsons said the poll used emotional language and hypotheticals and was designed to get a specific answer.

“That's OK. I guess United Way —if they want to become an advocacy organization instead of an organization that helps poor people —can do that. That’s up to their board and to their donors,” Parsons said during that interview. “And I guess F&M can do that if they want to be part of it. But what you can’t do is hold this out to the community as an objective poll, because it’s not.”

F&M professor Stephen Medvic later pushed back against Parsons’ criticism.

“It’s hard not to conclude that Parsons is questioning the design of the study because he doesn’t like the results,” Medvic wrote in an opinion piece published by LNP | LancasterOnline. He added that those results accurately capture high demand for a public health department.

On Tuesday, Parsons again said he doesn’t agree. Consider, Parsons said, survey questions such as one that referenced a hypothetical health department’s 25% increase in public health. “Where did that 25 percent come from?” Parsons asked. “They still haven’t said.”

Parsons said he is open to further discussion about a county health department.

“But obviously as a conservative I’m skeptical about creating another large government program when the state already has a health department,” Parsons said. “Why aren’t we having a conversation about why the state Department of Health has done so poorly?”

Parsons said he welcomes feedback from municipalities, but resolutions like the one being considered by the city aren’t the way to go.

“We’d like for it to be a constructive dialogue actually based on facts,” he said, adding resolutions are “more about making a political statement.”

Beyond city borders

Smith-Wade-El said during Monday’s meeting that the F&M study shows county residents are willing to support a health department when it comes with a small tax increase and a majority still support it when it comes with a moderate tax increase.

“This is clearly something that the residents of Lancaster County want and to my evaluation it extends beyond municipal border or political border,” he said.

Smith-Wade-El referenced elected officials in places such as Denver and Columbia putting Manheim Township’s suggestion on their agendas.

Columbia Borough last month advanced a resolution in support of a health department for an April vote. Denver Borough Council — which represents fewer than 4,000 residents in the northern part of the county near the Pennsylvania Turnpike — talked last month about the possibility of a similar resolution and offered informal support of the Manheim Township letter.

Council member Amanda Bakay made note of that Monday.

“2020 has certainly shown us that we don’t live on an island,” Bakay said. “And any time where we can agree with folks in Denver on something certainly means that it’s important enough that we all need to get behind it.”

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