The Delaware County Council is moving forward with plans to create a county health department, but the most important question remains unanswered: How much will it cost?
Sources tell InsideSources the first meaningful look at the math may not happen until spring.
“The Economic Impact Study is looking at the current budget and funding sources,” county spokeswoman Adrienne Marofsky told Delaware Valley Journal. “That is due back in mid-April. Some infrastructure and supplies have been purchased for vaccine efforts.”
Counties that do not have health departments are not completely left in the cold, as the state health department must fill that role and provide those services. Still, counties do have the option to create their own, and the counties that have are all in the Delaware Valley, with the exception of Allegheny.
A timeline shows the county hopes to appoint a health director by this May and would officially launch the department a year from now, even though some operations could begin earlier.
Critics of the move, like former county councilor Wallace Nunn, a Republican, will be keeping a close eye on how the funding is generated.
“One of my main reasons [for opposing the department’s creation] is the state is required to perform all these duties, and the state is funded with an income tax, which is far more fair than a real estate tax,” Nunn told DVJ.
“The county, though it would get some money from the state, is going to have to supplement that to the tune of several million dollars of real estate tax, if the other counties [with health departments] are any indication. And real estate taxes are killing the county that I love and the township that I love, Upper Darby, because it’s pumping those least able to pay.”
It’s no surprise that creating a new county government agency is going to cost taxpayers money. County Council Chairman Brian Zidek gave his own back-of-the-envelope calculation to Delaware Valley Journal earlier in the year.
“The Chester County and Montgomery County budgets are around $10 or $11 million, that may be a year or two old, but that gives you a rough ballpark,” Zidek told DVJ in March. “They get about 60 percent of their funding from state and federal grants so that takes care of — let’s use the $10 million figure — that takes care of $6 [million] of the $10 million dollars.”
Updated figures from Bucks County show Zidek is close. Bucks County Communications Director Larry King told DVJ that the 2020 expenditures for that county’s health department was $15 million. The commonwealth contributed about $3.8 million, federal dollars accounted for $2 million more, and fees from services made up another $2.1 million, leaving the county to come up with 45 percent on its own.
In Chester County, the gap between state and federal funding and funds provided by the county was $815,559 in 2018 and $1,431,299 in 2019.
Advocates note some Delaware County residents will have the costs offset when their municipal-funded health operations are replaced by the county’s.
“Most municipalities have health officers, not a health department,” Marofsky said. “As the DCHD is established, we’ll work with the municipalities to incorporate the health officer roles into the DCHD.”
When the pandemic erupted in Pennsylvania in March, Delaware County turned to Chester for assistance in managing stay-at-home orders and other decisions that came with the unique challenges posed by COVID-19. Proponents say that alone is proof that the county is making the right call in creating its own department.
But Nunn says Chester County is instead a cautionary tale. Its health department signed a $20 million contract with Advaite Inc. for a failed COVID-19 antibody testing program. The county has filed a $11 million lawsuit and Adviate plans a countersuit against the county, according to the Inquirer.
Nunn and other opponents of a county health department know there’s little they can do to stop it. After decades of Republican majorities, Delaware County government is dominated by Democrats, many of whom campaigned on the promise of creating a health department.
“I think most of this has been driven by ideology as opposed to common sense,” Nunn said. “And I’m not disparaging motives. I’m not saying they’re bad people, But I what am suggesting is their ideology is crowding out common sense.”