Lehigh Valley

Council hears mixed news on Gracedale's financial health

EASTON, Pa. - Northampton County Council got an early reading on the financial health of the Gracedale nursing home, and the news was mixed.

A quarterly statement from Premier Healthcare Resources, the company hired by council last September to manage Gracedale, is due at the end of the month.

But Ross Marcus, human services director for the county, gave a brief preview Thursday night. Marcus didn't put a dollar amount on the savings, but listed several areas where Premier has helped cut costs.

Controls on overtime have been tightened, Marcus said, and monthly budget meetings with department heads have resulted in ideas for other savings.

Gracedale now has the ability to admit patients on weekends and in the evening, and Premier is working with a collection agency to make sure bills are paid, Marcus added.

After hearing the news, council president John Cusick said he was happy there was some progress on a number of issues, "but there's still a ways to go," especially in the area of labor costs.

The county is more than $6 million a year shy of making Gracedale self- supporting, Cusick said, and council is trying to narrow that gap as much as possible.

In other business, council voted 7-1-1 to approve an ordinance that would allow a drilling fee on natural gas wells -- even though there are no known gas deposits in Northampton County.

Solicitor Phillip Lauer said there are accessible deposits near the county, and the ordinance will permit a fee to be imposed if things change.

The measure sparked a debate among council members. Tom Dietrich, who abstained by voting "present," wondered why such an ordinance was necessary.

"We're passing out ordinances like they're decks of cards," he said. "Isn't it our job to place a limitation on government over people's rights? ... And what did it cost to prepare this [ordinance]?"

Council member Robert Werner said that given the "close your eyes and compromise" policy on natural gas drilling supported by Governor Tom Corbett, "it behooves us to move on this [ordinance], just in case."

Lauer pointed out that under state law, council would forfeit the right to impose the fee if it did not act by Monday.

There was another dust-up over spending $40,000 to hire a third part- time court master to handle a backlog of cases, which council approved 8-1. Dietrich said the court administrator had proposed a solution that would cost only $10,000. "And within 40 minutes, this council had a $40,000 solution. It's like a roofer telling me he can do my roof for $10,000. I'm not going to offer to pay him $40,000 for the roof."

Council member Kenneth Kraft said Dietrich was "completely off base" with his "crazy roof analogy." He said the part-time position was cost effective, because when the work load eases, the third master would work fewer hours.

Council decided to study taking a stand on the Neighborhood Improvement Zone that Allentown is using to help fund a downtown hockey arena. Several municipalities are mounting a legal challenge because the zone diverts their earned income tax revenues to Allentown. But some on county council wonder if the county has any legal standing, because the county does not collect earned income tax, only property taxes.

Council unanimously approved a five-year, $5.33 million contract with A'Viands, of Roseville, Wis., to provide food service at the county prison. Robert Meyers, director of corrections, said the county will pay $1.21 a meal, and that the new contract will save the county money.

Bethlehem-based public radio station WDIY was given a $5,000 grant on a 7-2 vote. Dietrich and Thierry dissented. Dietrich said giving the grant now circumvents a procedure that allows organizations to ask for grants at the end of the year, when the budget is being discussed.

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