Anxieties over York City's financial health are fueling a quarrel between Mayor Kim Bracey and members of the York City Council.
Bracey's proposal last week to give a $2,300 merit raise to Police Chief Wes Kahley earned little favor among council members, several of whom expressed reluctance to hike a director's salary when the city is facing yet another year of expected multi-million-dollar increases to its pension obligations.
The meeting exposed a divergence of thinking among city leaders about how they should proceed in an environment of shrinking revenues and ballooning expenses.
Last week, the mayor called it "a slap in the face" that the council wouldn't consider a modest raise for Kahley.
On Friday, Councilman Michael Helfrich said, "it's more of a slap in the face to the people of York to be spending money that we don't have."
Pension issue: Looming over the debate is a potential $2 million increase next year in York's pension obligation and a strong desire to avoid yet another property tax increase.
Bracey said she's working constantly to offset that cost without placing the burden on the backs of taxpayers.
She said she is actively lobbying Pennsylvania lawmakers to consider reform. Bracey has specifically advocated for a proposal from Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, that would shift pension benefits for police and firefighters to a more "financially sustainable" model.
Bracey said pension reform is a long-term solution to the city's financial problems. More immediately, she is working to increase revenues through initiatives like the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program and the city's ongoing efforts to collect payment from delinquent sewer and refuse customers.
The mayor said she is getting little help from council members in those efforts.
Chief's pay: "My chief is deserving of a 2.5 percent raise. Period," Bracey said Friday.
And, she said, the money is available. Bracey said the city budgeted $89,000 in 2014 for potential increases to non-union employees' salaries.
For non-union employees, except directors, the mayor can bestow raises at her discretion. City law requires approval from the council for increases to directors' salaries.
To make her case for the raise last week, Bracey presented the council with a spreadsheet detailing the salaries of 16 police chiefs in other third-class cities and other York County departments.
Bracey said she did that because council members have requested such information for previous salary proposals.
Helfrich, however, said he saw "nothing compelling" on the salary comparison document provided by Bracey.
Kahley's salary of about $94,000 seems to be in line with the chiefs of comparable departments, Helfrich said.
Councilman David Satterlee agreed.
"I think there are a couple that were oddly high in their salary," Satterlee said. "But, overall, his seemed in the range of a police chief for a city of our size."
Previous vote: Earlier this year, Satterlee and Helfrich were among council members who voted to approve increases for public works director Jim Gross and former business administrator Michael O'Rourke.
The increases for Gross and O'Rourke were not merit raises, however. They were retroactive restorations of cost-of-living increases the two directors did not receive years earlier.
That distinction is important, Helfrich said, especially in a city where most citizens "do not get COLAs."
Since taking the job four years ago, Kahley's salary has risen from about $88,000 to $94,000 because of cost-of-living increases.
Councilwoman Renee Nelson said she'd prefer to consider directors' salary increases during the annual budget season — not in the middle of a year.
"I'm not saying (Kahley) doesn't deserve it. I'm just saying, at this point, it's not financially an appropriate business decision," she said.
Council President Carol Hill-Evans said she believes the city is at a "crossroads."
"I think we need to just be careful of the money that we're spending," she said. "It's not about performance in this case. It's more about the money."
The city's dire financial situation is not unique. Cities across the state are struggling.
Intervention on the state level is crucial, as the state "cannot allow these pension obligations to strangle every city in the state," Satterlee said.
"That being said, we have to be very careful with the budget. We have to be responsible with it," he said.
— Reach Erin James at firstname.lastname@example.org.