EASTON, Pa. – Northampton County will explore creating a health bureau, County Executive Lamont McClure said Thursday

McClure told County Council that federal American Rescue Plan pandemic relief money could cover the costs. Council would have to approve any spending on studying the idea or creating a bureau. 

When new Commissioner John Brown, a former county executive, asked whether the idea had been considered before, McClure said a bi-county bureau in cooperation with Lehigh County was discussed about 15 years ago.

Maintaining Northampton County control would be preferable to dealing with "an unresponsive bureaucrat from a bi-county agency," he said.

McClure has said earlier that ventures that ostensibly serve both counties sometimes favor Lehigh County, home to Allentown, the region's biggest city.

Commissioner Ron Heckman, who participated in the earlier talks, said the bi-county concept "seemed to focus on urban areas" south of Route 22 and not on rural areas, particularly those in the northern fringe of the county.

In a press release issued after the meeting, McClure stated, "With a health bureau that answers only to the County of Northampton, we're assured our suburban and rural areas will receive as much focus as our more developed communities." 

McClure said he has talked with new Bethlehem Mayor J. William Reynolds about the idea. Bethlehem has a health bureau already, and in another twist, the city is in Lehigh and Northampton counties. McClure said Bethlehem residents were wary during the previous discussions of risking the loss of services they received from the city. 

The county has invited Johns Hopkins University, Drexel University, Rowan University and others to consider studying the issue, McClure said. He did not put a specific figure on the price for a study or a bureau, but he said the county could use some of its $30 million of 2022 federal COVID-19 funds to cover costs. 

Meanwhile, "We are awash in omicron," the latest variant of the COVID-19 virus, McClure said.

That is the result of the county's proximity to the COVID hot spots of New York City, New Jersey and the Philadelphia area, he said. Despite that, he said the health bureau concept is not just about the pandemic, a once-in-a-century crisis.

"In addition to dealing with the crisis posed by COVID-19, a health bureau could address infectious diseases such as influenza, tuberculosis and HIV," McClure said in his press release, "as well as implementing programming to improve maternal and child health and provide support for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc."

Sewage plant sludge

The only member of the public to address council was Millie Beahn of Plainfield Township. She lives near a preserved farm where the Nazareth Borough Municipal Authority plans to spread sludge from its sewage plant. Beahn has been seeking help from the county to stop the plan. 

Pay raises

Also during Thursday's meeting, Council voted to override McClure's vetoes of salary raises for the county controller and commissioners, though the raises would only take effect with the next office holders.  

U.S. Capitol riot

As the meeting opened, Commissioner Kerry Myers, a U.S. Navy veteran, noted the one-year anniversary of the riot at the U.S. Capitol building. Myers asked that council overlook political differences and stick together to serve the residents of Northampton County.

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