York City residents happy with their representatives on the York City Council can vote to keep two Democratic incumbents. Or, they can opt to change course by electing a Libertarian or Republican newcomer.
Four people are vying for two four-year terms on the council.
The incumbent Democrats are Henry Nixon, a retired longtime city resident, and Renee Nelson, a teacher. Nixon and Nelson are each seeking a second term.
They face challenges from Republican Cynthia Martin, a retired nurse, and Libertarian Manuel Gomez, who works as an interpreter.
A two-year term is also up for grabs, but Democratic incumbent David Satterlee is the only person seeking it.
The York Dispatch posed the following questions to the candidates.
Manuel Gomez (L)
Age and address: 29, of East King Street
Community involvement: I highlight my work in the York County Libertarian Party solely because of its role in the public process. I don't trumpet my involvement with volunteer agencies to bolster my attributes as a candidate, so an exhaustive list will not be provided. I fulfill my tasks and move on. Chair of 95th District and public relations committees - York County Libertarian Party; volunteer with various other community agencies.
Cynthia Martin (R)
Age and address: 64, of Dallas Street
Occupation: retired nurse
Education: Goldenwest College
Community involvement: AARP taxes for elderly
Renee Nelson (D)
Age and address: 37, of South Pine Street
Education: BA, York College
Community involvement: Girl Scouts
Henry Nixon (D)
Age and address: 65, of North Newberry Street
Education: BA, Gettysburg College
Community involvement: Current: Community Progress Council, Board of Directors, chair Buildings & Grounds Committee, member Strategic Planning Committee; Leadership York, Program Development Committee
Past: York City Dollars For Scholars, York City Waste Water Treatment Authority, Chair, Mayor Brenner's transition team; Literacy Council of York County, steering committee that founded the Cultural Alliance of York County, among many others
Questions and answers:
1. The city's business administrator, Michael O'Rourke, has said he may propose the implementation of a new tax in 2014. The distressed pension earned income tax would potentially increase the city's revenue by collecting a percentage of income from people who work in the city but live elsewhere. However, the city may be required to increase the earned-income tax rate on its own residents in order to collect that tax from commuters. What are your thoughts on this idea?
Gomez: I do not support the failed logic that new and raised taxes are the answer to our budgetary woes. To the contrary, it's the single biggest factor contributing to our financial demise. There simply isn't any more money to take from the people. The addition of yet another cost penalty in the form of a commuter tax for locating a business in the City of York would prove to be detrimental during a time when we should be looking to expand the tax base and draw businesses and homeowners into the city instead of chasing new and existing ones away. The added cost of doing business will cause those that can leave to bail, and those considering entry to look elsewhere. Failed ideas such as this one are solid proof this city needs a new breed of leaders and thinkers post haste.
Martin: No answer.
Nelson: I am concerned that continually adding taxes doesn't always fix our monetary issues, often if it does it's only temporary. I am as always willing to listen to all proposals but am concerned that we may be driving more families out of the city.
Nixon: I discussed this in depth with Mr. O'Rourke and Mayor Bracey several years ago. It is one of the suggestions from the 5-year financial plan by Pennsylvania Financial Management. It was decided to put it on hold. While this would not be an onerous tax, it does add one more tax on already burdened property owners. There are literally thousands upon thousands of employees/business owners who come downtown every day. They benefit from our infrastructure and public safety. If I knew that all these non-city residents were helping to pay for pension liabilities incurred by city employees who maintain our infrastructure and public safety, I would anti-in my fair share to reduce the astronomical pension liability. Finally, I would hope that the State Legislature would act before cities like us are bankrupt and there isn't any money for pensions.
2. Groups like Downtown Inc are working to improve downtown York and its appeal to outsiders, ultimately with the goal of making York City a popular destination. Projects in the works include a Continental Square makeover, the final phase of the Northwest Triangle development and the extension of the York County Heritage Rail Trail through the city. Meanwhile, the city government spends a relatively small amount of money -- less than 1 percent of the city's budget, according to the deputy director of economic development -- on community and economic development. Do you think the city should be putting more resources toward economic development, or is it spending too much already? What kinds of economic development projects should the city be working on?
Gomez: The city should prioritize the stabilization of its core infrastructure and end its fascination with high risk, low-yield speculative projects such as the Northwest Triangle. Recent budget talks revealed that the city doesn't have enough funds to maintain our crumbling sewer system. Residents and homeowners should be up in arms that taxpayer funds are being directed towards use in risky, debt-ridden projects that mostly favor a few pet developers while key city infrastructure vital to each and every taxpayer's quality of life is left to crumble under neglect. I'd make it a priority that city projects benefit the city as a whole. There's more here than just downtown and a few pet developers. Our public policy and expenditures should be equally reflective of that reality.
Martin: No answer.
Nelson: I think if there are grant opportunities we should research them. Overall, I think we should do more restoring over new construction. We should make sure many of the open places we have are sold, filled or rented.
Nixon: Folks always look to Economic Development for cuts. We must not continue to gut staff while demanding increased development and jobs for our city. Staff is already overwhelmed. Moreover, the Department of Economic and Community Development is the enforcement arm for codes, permits and zoning. Coupled with public safety, enforcement of our "Quality of Life" ordinances is the path to a healthier, safer and brighter future. We must find the means to add at least one more Property Maintenance Inspector and add back in the Nuisance Abatement Coordinator. I promise to fight for this.
3. The city is required every year to pay its minimum municipal obligation (MMO) to support retired employees' pension funds. However, for the past several years, the city has made this payment after the Dec. 31 deadline, triggering an 8 percent interest rate on the debt. O'Rourke has said this strategy prevents the city from running out of cash each year. What do you think it would take for the city to make its MMO payment on time? Should this be a priority in 2014?
Gomez: This should be part and parcel of a careful debt reduction strategy incorporating cash flow projections and analysis. MMO payments are an executive function falling more in the domain of the mayor, but council can play a significant role. If elected, I will see to it that the city prioritizes meeting its MMO schedule on time and that cash flow is monitored in an austere fashion. In response to my questioning, business administrator O'Rourke is on record stating that he intended to divert 2012 MMO funds as a plan B if a $5M RACP grant for the police station overhaul wasn't delivered by the state. I will do everything in my power to ensure this type of reckless financial planning comes to an end. We currently have over $30M in general obligation debt rated junk status on the investment market due much in part to this kind of financial mismanagement.
Martin: By stopping the unnecessary spending and dealing with pensions, we would be able to pay our MMO on time (without 8 percent interest) and taxes would be lower for existing and new businesses making it more attractive for them to move in to or stay in the city. I understand this is not popular. I'm trying to help keep taxes and spending under control for city residents.
Nelson: I think we have to make a specific plan with goals to assure we meet them, perhaps create a group to meet and talk about what we could do and how we can do it. This is not a quick or easy fix. It would take planning and could take a year or so to get organized and completed.
Nixon: Paying the MMO on time is always a priority. Paying our current bills is also a priority. If the city runs out of cash -- and it would if the MMO were paid on time -- police and firefighters are not paid, all debts are in default, garbage collection stops, sewer employees don't come to work, electric and water is turned off, in other words the city shuts down. The 8 percent penalty goes into our pension fund not to some institution. So, paying the MMO late is the better of two evils. The MMO is about $6M. To make this on time we would have to furlough the entire police force and 25 percent of the firefighters, or raise taxes. I cannot support either choice.
4. It's not uncommon to hear the complaint that York City is not "business-friendly." Do you share this sentiment? What do you think the city could do to improve its relationships with existing businesses and attract others?
Gomez: Yes. The city must undertake a complete overhaul of its initial business permitting process. As it is now, the process for opening a business and maintaining compliance with the city's burdensome rules and regulations is far too cumbersome, vague and restrictive. The permitting process should be simple, streamlined and predictable. As I've advocated for years, I will see to it that protectionist city ordinances such as the city's food vendor rules be updated to remove existing barriers to entry and allow for the enhancement of the city's commercial vitality and overall economy. It's high time for the city to relax its well known regulatory stances and give the people some breathing room to engage in open commerce. This includes the rejection of a commuter tax and any and all failed ideas emanating from the business as usual crowd.
Martin: No answer.
Nelson: I think we have been making great strides in working with businesses and their needs. We have many new businesses that have begun in the past year. I also request any that are having issues to email or call us on council, we are always willing to listen.
Nixon: Top of mind is the recent Council vote to keep the Gamewell system. Not only is a business, small or large, required to hook up to Gamewell to the tune of $3,500-$5,000, but it must make payments of some $400 per month. In addition, all commercial properties are required to have a redundant system: that is another $400 per month. All this to keep a 127 year old deteriorating system that is reminiscent of Downton Abby. Such an unnecessary extra expense for a business. Economic & Community Development issues permits and reviews plans for new businesses and any renovation or expansion. The staff has been crippled by cuts. Properly staffed, waiting periods would be reduced and there would be quick action on questions, inspections and approvals. But, this comes with a price.
5. If you are elected, what can York City residents expect from you in terms of legislation and priorities? Do you have goals and/or ideas that you intend to introduce into the council's agenda?
Gomez: I'm here for the homeowners, the businesses and the residents that are desperately seeking someone to take a stand and give them a fighting chance. I've demonstrated the ability to ask the tough questions and follow through when others won't. I want to lessen the regulatory burden and cost of doing business in York and my legislative approach will be reflective of that. I want to reinforce council's role as a separate and distinct branch of government, not a rubber stamp strictly beholden to the administration's whims. I promise intense scrutiny of governmental affairs in every area where the government impacts city residents' lives, with a focus on putting the people first and correcting the imbalance of power that marks our current situation.
Martin: We have to stop unnecessary spending. If we don't want the residents of York to leave the city, we can't increase taxes. So we must work within the bounds of the budget. The city residents can't write checks when they have no money to back them up. Therefore, the city should be very careful with their spending when tehre is no additional money to spend. Also, the city can't afford to pay for some of the higher dollar pensions. This is a big strain on the budget. This causes the taxes to go up. If we lower the pension amount for new hires, and keep the percentage of future increases in line with what the budget allows, that would help lower taxes. The taxes going down would make it more attractive for outsiders to move into the city. No one will want to live in the city if the taxes are so high.
Nelson: I would like to continue to make sure we don't tax out our seniors. Work with the schools to create a friendly environment where people want to move in and not out.
Nixon: I will make every effort to ensure that we are actually planning for success, not just managing decline. I will continue my regular meetings with the mayor and her cabinet to lay out strategic goals, solve problems, get results, advance ordinances & resolutions that meet those goals. and move our city forward in a productive and professional manner. I will work tirelessly to continue the improvement of many of our city neighborhoods and to reverse the decline of others. I will lobby to add personnel who check nuisance property violations and bolster the "Citizen Inspector" program, which empowers residents to improve their neighborhoods. I will continue to seek multi-municipal collaborations to strengthen current delivery of services and save precious human and financial resources.