By Chrissy Houlahan
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” – Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities
My congressional district is where the Red meets the Blue, and it is truly a Tale of Two Cities.
The Pennsylvania 6th is comprised of parts of two counties: Berks and Chester. Berks County is home to 420,000 people, is largely a rural and farming county, but does contain the city of Reading, familiar to many from its storied steel and industrial heritage and its place on the Monopoly board.
Reading is now one of the most challenged communities in the state and arguably the nation. Berks County is managed by three commissioners, two Republican and one Democrat.
The chairperson is a Republican. Chester County is home to 520,000 people and is one only of two counties in Pennsylvania that is growing in population.
Chester Country is a combination of the affluent suburbs of Philadelphia, rolling countryside, and dairy and mushroom farms. This county is managed by three commissioners as well, two Democrat and one Republican.
The chair is a Democrat. Both counties have balanced their budgets for years, and even managed a surplus. This is a truly purple place with roughly 40% of people registering as Democrat, 40% as Republican, and 20% as Independent.
In the early days of this pandemic, I made a series of calls to the Berks and Chester County Chairs. There were just so many unknowns – how fast will COVID spread, will our healthcare system be able to handle a surge, should we shut down our nonessential businesses?
I remember talking with the Chester County Chair who was trying to figure out how to get ahead of the curve because the Federal response had been so slow, and because the virus was closing in on Philadelphia. In the end, she went to overseas manufacturing sources for both PPE and COVID tests.
She also domestically sourced antibody tests for the county. In an unprecedented action, Chester County literally wired millions of dollars to these suppliers to protect the community.
Even more remarkably, the county also did this for two neighboring counties, including Berks. Our part of Southeastern Pennsylvania received shipments of PPE and other critical supplies well before Federal support came, precisely because our local leaders acted swiftly and decisively, and, just as importantly, because they had the rainy day funds to support those decisions.
Those funds are now dry and county and borough revenues are drying up as well as we head into nearly 60 days of a shutdown that will last at least another 20 according to our state’s plan. Chester Country has lost over 200 souls and Berks nearly 200 to COVID-19, with total cases for each at roughly 2,000 and 3,500 respectively.
It feels like those early conversations were a year ago, but this was just six weeks ago. At the end of March, I wrote to House leadership to ask that our counties be reimbursed for these purchases of testing materials, PPE and other critical medical supplies that they were making.
Thanks to bipartisan support, Congress’ CARES Act did provide aid to our states and largest counties and municipalities. Because of Chester County’s size, it is able to apply directly for aid and reimbursement. That is not the case for Berks County.
So, in my community alone, we have a disparity in the way the existing aid is being dispersed. Both communities are deserving.
Both planned well from a fiscal perspective, and both have done what they have been able to protect their citizens. Both communities are holding the line in battling COVID for our Commonwealth and country. Both have done this at a huge cost.
My community is not yet “open,” and we have held the line — arguably helping to prevent the spread of the virus to other areas that are now able to return to normal sooner. We will have to live with this for some time, at least until we have widespread testing capabilities and eventually, hopefully, a vaccine.
The CARES Act did not allow for states and localities to use Federal aid to make up for lost revenue – revenue lost for doing the right thing.
It is for that reason that I am a cosponsor of U.S. Rep. Don Bacon’s R-Neb., bipartisan FLEX Act, which would begin to address this issue. And it is for that reason that today I also voted for the Heroes Act, which contains $875 billion in funding for our states and local governments.
Some of my colleagues have questioned whether this just empowers “bail outs” for those who have mismanaged their budgets. You can see from my community’s example that that is not the case.
Christian Leinbach, the Republican chairman of the Berks County Board of Commissioners said, “We call on Congress and the administration to work together to pass additional aid for county governments now!“
Marian Moskowitz, the Democratic chairwoman of Chester County agrees and stated, “It is critical that our local governments and municipalities receive funding allowing them to continue giving much needed services to our residents.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. We need to listen to our local elected leaders and follow their example to act boldly, and decisively, to ensure they and we all can weather this crisis. I call on the Senate to also vote to help our state and local governments continue to protect us and our way of life.
This federal assistance is no bailout, and this is not partisan. There is and old military expression that “an army marches on its stomach.”
Roughly translated, this means that when you are at war you need to make sure that you are feeding the troops. We are at war against COVID.
We need to provide our frontline generals the resources we need to combat our common enemy – the disease. We do this together so that we can move safely from the worst of times to the best of times again.
U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat, represents the 6th Congressional District, which includes parts of Berks and Chester counties. She writes from Washington D.C.