EDITORIAL: In reasonable deal, Wolf makes point, Lebanon County gets most of its money

  • Gov. Tom Wolf and Lebanon County were in a dispute about federal aid for the county.
  • Wolf had been withholding the aid because the county had defied Wolf's pandemic restrictions.
  • In the deal, Lebanon County agreed to spend $2.8 million on a universal masking-wearing campaign.
  • In return, Wolf released the county's federal aid money.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf

A good compromise typically leaves both parties a little unhappy.

That’s how you know that the compromise is fair. Neither side can walk away claiming victory.

The settlement that was reached last week between Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Lebanon County would seem to fall under that umbrella.

Neither the folks in the Wolf administration, nor the officials in Lebanon County, got everything they wanted. Each side, however, got what it could in the deal, without making the lawyers any richer.

The dispute: The dispute started when the Republican-controlled Board of Commissioners in Lebanon County passed a resolution to unilaterally lift Wolf's pandemic restrictions on May 15, four days after the Democratic governor threatened to block COVID-19 funding to any county that defied him.

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The number of new infections in Lebanon County subsequently doubled, and Lebanon was the last Pennsylvania county to move from “yellow” to the least-restrictive “green" phase in Wolf's reopening plan.

Wolf obviously did not feel he could allow that blatant act of political defiance to stand without some form of punishment. So, Wolf followed through on his threat and refused to release $12.8 million in federal coronavirus relief aid to Lebanon County.

Not surprisingly, Lebanon County filed suit last month in an effort to compel Wolf to release the funding.

Breaking the impasse: The impasse was broken last week when Lebanon County agreed to spend $2.8 million on a universal masking-wearing campaign. In return, Wolf released Lebanon County’s federal aid.

In settlement, Lebanon County to launch $2.8M mask-wearing campaign

For Wolf, the idea of releasing any money at all to a county that openly defied his orders during a health crisis likely left a bitter taste in his mouth. 

Still, Wolf did get a couple of things out of it.

First, the money spent on the universal mask-wearing campaign can only do some good in the ongoing battle to convince the public that wearing masks is an absolute necessity.

Second, Wolf drove home a point that governmental entities will pay a price for public defiance of his orders. It will certainly give pause to other county or local officials considering similarly defiant actions.

Lebanon County, meanwhile, gets nearly 80% of the money that it was due to receive. That’s a lot better than nothing, which is what Wolf originally threatened.

Not everyone happy: The Lebanon County commissioners, who had previously blasted Wolf's shutdown orders, were far more conciliatory in announcing the settlement Friday. Not everyone in Lebanon County, however, was happy about the deal.

Lebanon County Rep. Russ Diamond, a Republican who has stoked opposition to Wolf's pandemic shutdowns — and who has spoken out against the wearing of masks — excoriated the settlement.

“No matter how sweet you think your deal with the devil is, you will eventually end up in hell," Diamond wrote on Facebook. “This is absurd and borders on extortion. I don’t even know how you’d spend $2.8 million to advertise anything in Lebanon County.”

It’s obvious that Diamond is more interested scorched-earth political battles than the art of compromise. 

Neither side gets complete victory: While neither Wolf nor the Lebanon County officials can declare complete victory under the settlement, there is one clear winner in the compromise — the folks of Lebanon County.

They will clearly benefit now that the county can use the relief money to reimburse school districts and local governments for virus-related expenses, distribute grants to small businesses and nonprofits, and support economic development and behavioral health programs.