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With 2018 budget discussions on the horizon, York City officials detailed the progress being made toward the city’s five-year Vision 2020 plan and the need for a longer-term goal to work toward.

Launched at the start of 2016, Vision 2020 is the blueprint officials are using to stabilize the city’s financial situation through better fiscal planning, regional collaborations to reduce costs and a more competitive tax structure.

Mayor Kim Bracey’s Vision 2020 plan promises a 15 percent real estate tax reduction between 2016 and 2020. 

Property taxes have been cut 3 percent so far, and York City business administrator Michael Doweary said property owners can expect a 4 percent decrease in the 2018 budget and an 8 percent reduction in 2019’s budget.

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Despite the progress, Bracey pointed to the need for collaboration among the city, York County and the York City School District, noting the city’s property tax cuts in the past two years have been undone by substantial increases at the county level.

“No one was more disheartened” to hear of the county’s tax hikes, Bracey said. Doweary also noted York City’s property tax rate is still 40 percent higher than Lancaster’s, putting the city at a significant disadvantage when trying to attract new businesses and residents.

Several years ago, Bracey said, conversations and news reports were dominated by talks of bankruptcy and a potential state takeover. 

But by working through “early intervention programs” and cutting costs across all city departments to stave off bankruptcy, the city “clawed” its way back from the “financial brink,” Bracey said Thursday, Aug. 31.

‘Focus on the basics’: While the White Rose City’s financial outlook is much brighter than a decade ago, Bracey said York City is still under serious fiscal pressure as a result of state law restrictions and mandated legacy costs, including pensions and post-employment benefits.

Just two years ago, York City was $10 million behind on its pension payments and the pension fund was operating with a deficit of more than $5 million, Doweary said.

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Today, the pension fund has a positive balance of $3.2 million and the city is keeping up with its pension payments, Doweary said, though he was wary of over-praising the city for being able to pay its bills.

While some believe city officials should be more proactive about marketing the city to new residents and businesses, York Revolution President and Better York Chairman Eric Menzer said he and other business leaders urged officials to “focus on the basics.”

Without top-notch public safety services, infrastructure and economic development, all other efforts to promote York City are futile, Menzer said.

Long-term plan needed: Establishing a long-term plan will create a sense of predictability — a critical component for attracting new businesses to the city, Menzer said.

“More than anything else, the fact that there is a plan is critically important, in terms of having confidence in making continued business investments, in growing our businesses here,” Menzer said. “Step 1 is having a plan, and I think the sense of stability and continuity that (Bracey and Doweary) have brought to bear has been a really important factor in the last two or three years.”

York City’s finances are “going in the right direction” thanks to better planning and some hard cuts by city officials, Doweary said, but he and Bracey urged residents and business leaders to help them plan for the next 10 to 20 years.

A wide range of public input will give officials a “greater understanding” of what the city’s priorities should be going forward and will help to avoid making any nearsighted decisions that could hurt the city’s future finances, Doweary said.

When asked about a potential sale of the city’s sewer system to raise funds, Doweary again pointed to the need for long-term thinking and a plan on which to base significant financial decisions.

“We’re not going to sell out the future for instant gratification,” Doweary said. “We’re not going to sell ourselves short to fill a budget hole today.”

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