Seven Delaware County municipalities– Springfield, Ridley, Upper Chichester, Aston, Tinicum, Darby Township and Marple—are seeking an injunction to prevent the county’s new health department from taking over the duties of municipal health inspectors.

Municipal officials have been telling Delaware Valley Journal for months about their concerns over what the county department’s takeover of health inspections would have on local businesses as well as municipal revenues.

The complaint said that Delaware County will not meet the targeted January 1, 2022 date for the health department to begin functioning, and an injunction is necessary to ensure the townships can manage their 2022 budgets for health inspection services.

While the local municipalities are not opposed to creating a health department to track diseases, chronic medical conditions, ensure emergency preparedness and pandemic planning, among other functions, the officials from those towns specifically ask that the undetermined timing of the health inspections be halted.

“This is a responsibility that has traditionally fallen to municipalities, who employ health officers and other staff to provide these services,” the township officials said in a statement.

“Municipalities have a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers to efficiently manage their budgets and how they spend tax dollars,” said James Byrne, an attorney representing Springfield, Ridley, and Aston townships. “Townships cannot effectively manage their budgets with the lack of certainty that exists around their staffing needs and whether they will be able to recoup those costs from fees for the health inspection services they provide. This is about good government and the efficient, responsible use of tax dollars.”

In a September 2021 letter, Delaware County Executive Director Howard Lazarus informed municipalities that the county expected the new health department to begin operations on January 1, 2022. At that time, it would take over health inspections of retail food establishments, food trucks, private wells and on-site septic systems, public pools, and other establishments — inspections currently conducted by municipalities.

The letter also said that if the department was not ready by that date, municipalities should be prepared for the county to assume those duties at any time and to prepare for the impact that the “loss of services” will have on their municipal budgets, the statement said.

Byrne told DVJournal the main issue is the timing because municipalities need to know when inspections might begin in order to fulfill their fiscal responsibilities. Delco’s first Health Department Director, Melissa C. Lyon, CPH, will not start her new job until January 14, he said. Byrne believes the new department would not  open its doors on January 1.

So far, none of the towns have laid off their health inspectors, but it would not surprise him if those inspectors begin to seek other jobs.

“Restaurants will still need to be inspected,” he said. “Who’s going to do that? They’re putting us behind the eight ball.”

County spokeswoman Adrienne Marofsky said that Lazarus “has been in communication with all 49 municipalities in the county regarding the establishment of the County Health Department and the change in process regarding health inspection services. State law requires the county to take over local inspections when it begins operations as an accredited Health Department. Municipalities were made aware of the process several months ago and urged to prepare accordingly. The majority of the 49 municipalities have done so and share the county’s common goal of protecting the health and safety of all residents.”

“Mr. Byrne’s statement that ‘the commonwealth approval process for new county health departments typically takes 2 years to complete while Delaware County indicated it would not initiate the process until December 9, 2021’ is not accurate,” she added.

“The creation of the County Health Department has been a two-year process, which first began days after the three new council members were elected in Nov. 2019. The final step in the process to open a County Health Department was to submit a presentation to the State, which was done on Dec. 9, 2021. The County is awaiting final approval from the state,” Marofsky said. “Delaware County extends its gratitude and appreciation to the individuals, organizations, and community partners who have worked to assist and support the county in launching the County Health Department and support the Health Department’s vision to build healthy and thriving communities.”

In their joint filing in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, the townships cite a range of issues related to when the health department will be fully operational. These issues include inadequate staffing, incomplete renovations of the new health department offices, and a recently issued Request for Qualifications for a temporary staffing services agency to fill the void in yet-to-be-hired employees. The filing also notes that in the past, the state approval process for new county health departments has typically taken two years to complete. At the same time, Delaware County indicated it would not initiate the process until December 9, 2021, the release said.

Earlier this year, several local restaurant owners raised concerns about the county’s plan to take away health inspection services from local municipalities. The restauranteurs noted that local municipalities and their health inspectors have a history of being timely and responsive. They expressed concerns that at the county level, restaurants making renovations could be forced to wait months for direction needed to ensure compliance or to schedule needed inspections.

At a press conference in September, Tom Thornton, the owner of McGillicuddy’s said, “Maybe it’s a good idea in theory for down the road, but do I think it should be implemented by January 1? It doesn’t sound like it at all.”

Thornton wondered who was going to pay the county inspectors.

“The county is just looking for a money grab,” he said. “So now is that going to fall on the business owners or the taxpayers? Either way, it stinks. It’s no good for anyone.”

Conor Quinn, owner of Kettle, a café, also spoke at the same press conference.

“Who are you going to call?” Quinn, who is also a Haverford Township commissioner, said that when people call him he will have to refer them to the county instead of handling a problem locally. “That’s not fair to them.”

Byrne, meanwhile, noted that while some townships agree with the restauranteurs and believe that municipalities are best suited to handle the health inspections, the focus of this complaint is to seek an injunction in the short term. He said this is necessary given the significant uncertainty related to when the new county health department will be fully functioning, staffed, and trained in order to provide health inspection services.

“At this stage, the townships’ focus is on obtaining some level of certainty related to their budgets for 2022,” said Byrne. “The county has been unable to provide us with a clear picture of when the department will be operational and when they will be prepared to assume these responsibilities. For the townships to meet their fiduciary obligations, they are asking the court to intervene and provide an injunction. The bottom line is that the townships need certainty when overseeing their budget, and that is severely lacking at this point.”

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