county council meeting

Northampton County Council President Ronald Heckman, top row, center, presides over Thursday's council meeting from the judge’s chair in Courtroom 1.

EASTON, Pa. - Northampton County may open its offices to the public in June, County Executive Lamont McClure Jr. said Thursday.

County buildings have been closed to the public, with exceptions for emergencies such as posting bail, because of the coronavirus pandemic. McClure said at Thursday’s meeting of county council that anybody entering county offices will have to wear a mask and be subject to a temperature check.

McClure also addressed complaints from Department of Human Services workers who had to return to offices this month after working from home because of the virus.

“We must serve the public,” McClure said. “This virus is not going anywhere,” he said, and with a vaccine perhaps more than a year away, the county had to return to normal operations.

“We are doing everything we can to minimize the risk of our employees contracting COVID-19,” McClure said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus. There is no way to eliminate the risk, he said.

Two union leaders objected to the return to offices. Steve Catanese, president of Service Employees International Union Local 668, said workers can do their jobs effectively without being in a large office.

Kezzy Johnson, a shop steward for the human services workers, said the county asked the staff to return too soon. She said that the administration and some in the media have made false statements about workers.

“DHS employees have never stopped working and our productivity was never down,” Johnson said.

The council met in Courtroom 1, which is larger than its usual meeting room and allows for more social distancing. The last few meetings were held virtually.

Council President Ronald Heckman said that in June, the council and its committees would resume meeting in their third-floor chambers.

Council had a short agenda for the meeting Thursday, but did not get to its usual business for about an hour and 45 minutes, as members listened to public comments and asked questions of McClure and administrators.

McClure complained about news stories with “clickbait headlines” that he said did not fairly represent the effect of COVID-19 on the county’s Gracedale Nursing Home.

As of Thursday, 44 Gracedale residents had died from COVID-19.

“Gracedale is the largest nursing home under one roof in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” McClure said. He said that the Lower Nazareth Township facility takes in sick people who may have nowhere else to go, and that on a percentage basis, the COVID-19 death rate at Gracedale is “in the middle of the pack of nursing homes” in Pennsylvania.

In other business, council approved two plans for bond refinancing. The county assumes no financial responsibility with such approvals.

St. Luke’s University Health Network will refinance as much as $100 million in debt to take advantage of lower rates, not to start any new projects.

The other proposal, for refinancing of Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority (LNAA ) debt, drew the scrutiny of Councilman John Cusick.

He noted that the authority, which owns Lehigh Valley International Airport, will not get a lower interest rate and he likened the transactions to “financial juggling.”

Councilwoman Lori Vargo Heffner said that the airport needs to defer payments because of a steep decline in flying stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. April passenger traffic at LVIA was down 96.7%, the airport said in a recent press release.

“The airport is in dire straits,” Councilman Kevin Lott said.

In a finance committee meeting earlier Thursday, LNAA Executive Director Thomas Stoudt said that the refinancing allows the airport to defer $2.4 million in principal payments due this year.

“The idea is to preserve cash during this pandemic,” Stoudt said.

Council approved the refinancing by a 7-1 vote, with Cusick opposed. Margaret Ferraro was absent.

Earlier in the meeting, Heckman and McClure reiterated that the state, not the county, has ordered the shutdown of businesses. The county has no authority to close businesses because of the pandemic, McClure said.

As the meeting wound down, McClure said that Northampton County should consider cutting its contribution to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission because of inadequate funding for roadwork. Lehigh County is getting most of the money, he said.

“We pay 50% of the bills and we get less than 30% of the money,” he said.

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