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What's All the Fuss About?

Gracedale as a community Rohrschach Test.

Allow me to begin this piece with a quick disclaimer. As a Northampton County resident, a lawyer, and a former director of the Lehigh County Office of Aging and Adult Services, I’ve closely followed the heated public debate over the disposition of the county’s skilled nursing facility in Upper Nazareth Township. My background gives me a little insight into some aspects of the discussion, and I’ve tried--without much success--to bring my knowledge to bear to get a better sense of the nub of the controversy. I suspect many of you, regardless of your backgrounds, have also wondered just what to think after reading all of the recent local coverage.

I always hesitate to look at anything in a “black and white” context, because most issues are more layered and complex, and require a far more nuanced treatment than many new media/ADD/short-attention-span types are willing to give them these days. We do the subject of Gracedale an injustice by using simplistic labeling to choke off debate or to belittle those with differing opinions. This debate is not just about John Stoffa being cheap, or the county wanting to make a quick, dirty buck on a capital asset sale, any more than it’s just about throwing old people out in the snow, union-busting or whatever crazy thing Ron Angle happens to be up to at any given moment. I have heard all of these cited in the course of the debate, and none of these comments or characterizations is at all helpful to a reasoned discourse.

That said, it seems to me the public debate over the disposition of Gracedale could be streamlined a bit if we all agree to begin by examining the following two questions, and to do so honestly, intellectually, and with some degree of mutual respect:

(1) Is it an appropriate and essential function of the government of the County of Northampton to continue to directly furnish skilled nursing care to county residents, needy or otherwise?

(2) Can Gracedale be operated for the foreseeable future in a manner that will enable it to furnish adequate skilled nursing care to residents, needy or otherwise, without becoming an undue drag on the operating and capital budgets of the county? 

Obviously, liberals, conservatives and libertarians are unlikely to agree on an answer to the first question, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a wholly legitimate and intellectually purer inquiry than many of the politically poisoned questions I’ve heard posed in an effort to spin this dialogue. I’d give anything to see some of the more gifted minds in the community debate it--thoroughly, intellectually and respectfully--in a process that could help our community make up its mind for the right reasons.

If we assume, for the sake of argument and this piece, that the answer to the first question is “yes,” the second question remains no less vital and necessary, and furnishes ample fodder for a legitimate public debate on what is fiscally prudent, advisable and doable.

I must confess at this point that I’ve been quite conflicted over input from various sources related to the Gracedale debate. I’ve read a piece by County Councilman Lamont McClure and thought he made some good points. I feel the same about writings by Steven Barron and comments by John Stoffa and Ron Angle I’ve perused. The problem is that on the whole, the public debate over Gracedale has been obscured by brouhahas over union workers, old folks freezing in the snow, early campaign sabre-rattling and other obfuscations. We are 21st century people with access to good metrics, state-of-the-art communications and infinite modes of dialogue on issues of public importance. If the goal is to make a good decision on the disposition of Gracedale, neither a rush to market in the next few months nor submitting the question of sale or retention to public referendum in a factual vacuum make a whole lot of sense to me.

We as citizens in a republic, the interests of the elderly in our county, and our children who will someday pay for it all, deserve--and should demand--a robust and thorough vetting of the two questions I’ve raised above. Anything less is beneath our dignity and an abdication of our responsibility to everyone in our community.

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