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Bracey, Helfrich spar over York City's future
York City Mayor Kim Bracey and Councilman Michael Helfrich took the stage together for the first time this election season on Monday night to lay out their campaign platforms and answer some of the concerns of city residents.
The mayoral debate between the incumbent and her challenger was the main attraction at a candidates night that also featured the four hopefuls vying for three open seats on the York City Council. They will face off in the May 16 Democratic primary. No Republicans are on the ballot for any of the seats.
At the event hosted by the Alliance of Neighborhood Associations at Buchart Horn on West Philadelphia Street, Bracey told the crowd of about 150 people about the work she has accomplished in her first seven years in the mayor’s office.
The second-term mayor said she will look to further decrease crime and property tax rates over the next four years if re-elected.
“Let’s not risk progress” with a transition in the mayor’s office, Bracey said.
After touting property tax reductions in the city’s last two annual budgets, Bracey reminded those in attendance that her five-year Vision 2020 plan calls for a 15 percent cut by the turn of the decade, which Bracey plans to accomplish with 4 percent and 8 percent cuts in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
With several large projects in the pipeline, Bracey pointed to the recent spurt of revitalization in the downtown area and in several of the city’s neighborhoods, including projects at the Yorktowne Hotel and the newly opened Salem Square Library.
Meanwhile, Helfrich declared his intent to run York City more like a business and better serve residents by improving city hall’s customer service and responsiveness to complaints and requests.
The York City Council president also identified several areas where he would work to make city government more efficient and stop “wasting all that bureaucratic time.”
Helfrich said he wants to create a landlord registry to deal with property-code violations and use small portions of the city’s federal grant money to establish 20 new community centers in neighborhood churches and at nonprofit organizations.
“I want to lead a renaissance in community centers around the city,” he said, highlighting taxpayer-funded programs that have been cut from the budget over the years. “My goal is to have a community center, a neighborhood center, within two blocks of every kid in the city.”
Pension problems: The candidates answered several audience-generated questions Monday night, including one that asked about the fiscal health and future of York City in the face of mounting pension obligations.
Helfrich said he believes the city has “stepped back” from the brink of bankruptcy and having the state take over governmental functions under Act 47, the Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, but he warned that “the experts tell us we haven’t stepped back for long.”
Though the city has “enough to give a little tax money back” through property tax cuts, Helfrich said, city officials must try to reduce annual expenses by revising municipal pension plans for new city employees and public safety officials.
Helfrich said he would not try to take away any benefits for current city employees but noted that the legacy-cost-laden pension and health benefit plans are “ruining every third-class city” such as York.
If the city can reduce its expenses, officials can cut property taxes even further “so we can spur investment rapidly in the city before our expenses start to outpace us again,” Helfrich said.
Both Helfrich and Bracey called for help from Harrisburg to alleviate some of the city’s financial burden from pension plans.
Bracey was part of former York City Mayor John Brenner’s administration a decade ago when the city was close to declaring bankruptcy and prompting a state takeover, but she said York City, under her leadership, has been able to address some of the city’s main cost drivers.
She again touted her property tax cuts and thanked the police union for renegotiating its contract with the city, but she warned the progress “is not long lasting.”
“We’ve been able to take care of home by looking at what we can do here, (but) the changes that are needed are structural,” Bracey said, adding that she has been lobbying state legislators and Gov. Tom Wolf to “give us the municipal pension reform that we’ve been talking about for almost a decade.”