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York City Council considers nixing sewer rate increase

Julia Scheib
505-5439/@JuliaDispatch

York City Councilman Michael Helfrich wants to eliminate the proposed 6 percent sewer rate increase for city residents.

Michael Helfrich

He said as much after council's second budget hearing, when Mayor Kim Bracey and Business Administrator Michael Doweary presented the budgets for the Fire/Rescue Department, the police department and the Business Administration Department.

The sewer rate increase, which bumps up the cost of each 1,000 gallons of water by 50 cents, is projected to get the city an extra $300,000, which would go toward capital improvements to the sewer system slated for 2016.

Helfrich believes the city should try to find another way to raise that amount of money or put off the work it would pay for to avoid a rate increase because, he said, the rate increase would hit low- and middle-income families, more than canceling out the proposed 1 percent city property-tax reduction.

People with more children use more water, and people whose homes are worth less will benefit less from the tax decrease, he explained. Meanwhile, people who own big commercial buildings that use little water and people with small families who live in higher-value homes would come out ahead.

"You can try to differentiate between taxes and fees, but it all comes out of the same pocket," Helfrich said.

Helfrich said that on Tuesday, when council is scheduled to vote on the budget, he will vote against the increase. He will need the support of two other council members to eliminate the rate increase, he said.

"I would love for the administration to determine the best way to reduce the budget by $300,000," he said. Ultimately, he said, it should be up to them. But in case they don't come with such a plan on Tuesday, the councilman has been crafting a plan to find the $300,000 or a lower amount elsewhere in the budget by making cuts.

Helfrich said he was still weighing various solutions but felt he could strongly advocate for the elimination of the director position in the Department of Economic and Community Development. The position has a salary of $82,110 in the 2016 budget.

"I'm not certain that we need (that position)," he said. "We haven't needed it in the last one and a half years."

The department is currently headed by Shilvosky Buffaloe, who serves as interim director.

Reactions: "I'm still weighing everything," said Councilwoman Renee Nelson, declining to comment on whether or not she was in favor of cutting the rate increase.

Council President Carol Hill-Evans also declined to comment.

"I'm still combing through everything and finding out details," she said.

"Can I support this? Probably not," said Councilman Henry Nixon about Helfrich's plan.

Nixon said he might consider some aspects of a plan Helfrich had discussed with him but had strong objections to others.

Councilman David Satterlee said he still needed to discuss solutions with Helfrich. He wants to have the conversation because he shares Helfrich's concern about the impact the increase in sewer fees could have on city residents, he said.

However, he said he was conscious of the balance of power in the city government and didn't think the council should use the budget as leverage to achieve what members of the council think "should or shouldn't be happening in the city," he said.

Doweary said after the meeting that if the council refused to pass the sewer fee increase, he expected them to have a plan to find the money elsewhere in the budget.

A separate question: Last year, the council voted to eliminate two positions in the police department in order to transfer funds to a different department.

The positions were community and youth outreach coordinator and crime prevention coordinator, with the current salaries of $36,296 and $32,656, respectively.

The council failed to vote in the corresponding increase, and the positions weren't eliminated. Wednesday night, council members wondered why the positions hadn't been cut this year.

"What happens if we remove something from the budget but don't have the votes to put it somewhere else?" Helfrich asked. "It puts a hole in the process."

Bracey suggested that perhaps the council would have had to be more specific when eliminating the positions, addressing each line item associated with them to include benefits and other associated costs, for the action to be complete.

Hill-Evans told fellow council members she would look into the matter and share what she learned with them next week.

The City Council will meet to vote on the budget at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Council chambers in City Hall, 101 S. George St. For citizens who want to weigh in, the public comment period starts at 6:30.

— Reach Julia Scheib at jscheib@yorkdispatch.com.