At its final budget hearing on Wednesday, Northampton County Council voted 8-0 to beef up its contingency fund to a whopping $400,000 in next year's budget. The money will come from the stabilization fund and by reducing funding for IT.
Council member Peg Ferraro was absent.
Historically, Council's contingency fund is little more than huge slush fund from which it hands out money at the end of the year to make itself look good. Not this time. Council member Lori Vargo Heffner, who drafted a budget amendment increasing the contingency fund from $150,000 to $400,000, wants to do so to study three things. First, she'd like to get a long overdue pay study for the county workforce. Second, Council is concerned about whether its time for its own internal IT department. Third, she'd like to study what the hell is going on at Gracedale.
Council members Tara Zrinski and Kevin Lott amazingly expressed doubt whether Council has the authority to study Gracedale. "I don't know whether it's our job on Council to be studying Gracedale," worried Lott. "I just went down there the other day," said Zrinski. They should read the Home Rule Charter. Council is the governing body and has all residual powers. Gracedale administrators appear before Council once every month to discuss the nursing home for precisely that reason.
The rest of Council disagreed sharply. Kerry Myers stated, "Sometimes you have to spend a loittle bit to learn a little bit." A Gracedale presentation a few months ago was dismissed by Council member Ron Heckman as "popsickles and lollipops." "Smiling faces aren't always telling the truth," agreed Myers. He reminded everyone that, just a few weeks ago, a dark picture of the home was painted by some former employees.
Council member John Cusick said his main concerns at Gracedale are financial and its level of care. He pointed out that, even at the height of the pandemic, four residents were crammed into one room. He also noted that Administrator Jennifer Stewart-King has only ever worked at one nursing home, and might benefit from an independent study.
Zrinski eventually backtracked, stating her main concern was that the contingency fund would be a source of walking around money. She was satisfied by the explanations of intended use.