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How the Election Will Affect the Bi-County Health Department

New members on Northampton, Lehigh county councils could impact bi-county health effort.

Before the November election, the Board of Health was  on the Bi-County Health Department, and they will soon present their findings to the two counties' elected officials.

At issue is whether their proposal should be tabled until the economy recovers or banished forever, and whether this should happen in an unaccountable lame-duck session or after the election winners are seated.

While I'm sure the incumbents would like to have the final say on this, it would be more fair to wait until after the election winners are seated.

There's no practical reason that the voters' political choices shouldn't register right away. State and federal legislators need time to hire staff and move into their offices, but municipal government's not like that. Presumably the election winners are up to speed on the issues, so how much time do they realistically need to prepare?

Prior to the election, the vote count for the Health Department in Northampton County was four supporters and five opponents. Democrat Lamont McClure was the only Democrat in either county to vote against allowing the Board of Health to spend their own grant money. This enabled Republicans Ron Angle, Bruce Gilbert, Tom Dietrich and Barbara Thierry to block any action on the Northampton County side.

On the Lehigh side, most commissioners were in favor of the Health Department, with six supporters and three opponents. Andy Roman, Percy Dougherty, Daniel McCarthy, Gloria Hamm, William Hansell and David Jones voted to support the Board of Health, with Dean Browning, Glenn Eckhart and Thomas Creighton opposed. 

Last Tuesday, voters pushed the Lehigh and Northampton county governments in opposite political directions. Lehigh County voters selected four Republican commissioners, giving Republicans a veto-proof 7-2 majority opposite Democratic County Executive Don Cunningham.

In Northampton County, voters selected four Democratic councilmen, shrinking the Republican majority to a slim 5-4. The election results make it easier to get the votes for the Department in Northampton County, but more difficult in Lehigh.

In Northampton, the Department's most vocal opponent , a supporter of the Health Department. Retiring supporter Ann McHale was succeeded by cautious supporter Ken Kraft. Supporter Matthew Dowd was replaced with supporter Bob Werner. And incumbent opponent Lamont McClure prevailed over challenger Matt Connolly, who was also an opponent.

Mr. McClure recently said his views have changed from "unalterably opposed" to "skeptical." But he will no longer be the deciding vote on the department. The median vote on a resolution to table the proposal is now probably either Ken Kraft or John Cusick.

It seems likely that Northampton County could agree to table the proposal until the economy is stronger, rather than end it for good, with a 5-4 vote, or a 6-3 vote if Mr. McClure's views evolve rapidly enough.

Lehigh County is a different story. Lehigh Commissioners voted in favor of the Board of Health 5-3, with supporter Andy Roman absent.

After the election, the votes are harder to find, with supporters losing their seats to opponents, and opponents being replaced by like-minded challengers.

Despite the Republican sweep of Lehigh County, and the 7-2 majority, the Department appears to have lost only two net votes. Whether it loses a third vote will depend on whether Brad Osborne can be persuaded, since Mr. Osborne is now in the swing voter position on the commission.

The Health Department's best hope is that Mr. Osborne and the other skeptics can agree on a bipartisan list of demands that will win their support. The rest of Mr. Osborne's Republican running mates oppose the creation of a new department on anti-government grounds.

But there seems to be some hope that he could be persuaded of the economic benefits of public health: reducing sickness will make the region more productive and competitive. That's why so many Republicans haven't rejected the concept outright for small government reasons. The region's  sickness hurts the economy, and makes people poorer. Spending less money on treating illnesses would leave households with more money that can be saved or spent elsewhere in the economy.

If people don't believe public health services work to reduce sickness, then they shouldn't vote for the Health Department. But if they do believe public health services reduce sickness then they believe this is going to save households money in their role as private citizens, over and above what they will spend on the department in their role as taxpayers. I can't think of many treatments that cost less than $10, so $10 a year for the Health Department is a very good value proposition.

Ultimately, it all comes down to whether politicians decide they want to move on the department. The tea party Republicans probably can't be won over. They oppose a government role in providing preventive health care on an ideological level. But there are plenty of other local Republicans who fundamentally want to govern well, and use their time in office to solve real world problems. I hope Mr. Osborne turns out to be that kind of Republican.

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