York's 2019 budget plan: Fewer cops, more firefighters, higher health care costs

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch
Mayor Michael Helfrich and members of the budget team discuss a draft 2019 city budget at the first of two public hearings on Tuesday, Nov. 13.  (Photo by Rebecca Klar)

York City is looking for ways to cut other expenses in 2019 as it struggles to pay health care costs — including expenses that will carry over from this year. 

The City Council introduced the draft budget during a Tuesday, Nov. 20 meeting. The members will further discuss the draft budget at a Wednesday, Nov. 28 committee meeting.

Mayor Michael Helfrich said during a Wednesday, Nov. 14, budget hearing that insurance, mainly health care, is driving up costs in the city's $108.3 million proposed budget for next year.

The city is anticipating paying $2.8 million for health care in 2019 — and about 60 percent of that amount would be carried over from this year's $104.9 million budget, he said. 

"This is really where the pain is in this budget. We have kept costs low. We actually reduced the budget by close to $800,000 to make up for these insurance costs," Helfrich said. "This is really the crux of this year's budget."

City officials said there are about $1.2 million in insurance costs, mainly health care, that need to be paid out for 2019. But the city also has to take into account $1.8 million in insurance costs from this year, officials said. 

More:York City draft 2019 budget $4 million higher than 2018 

This year, the city borrowed money from its risk-management fund, similar to a savings fund for the city, to cover the health care costs, Helfrich said.

Residents might be unaware — since taxes didn't increase and there wasn't a public discussion of the rising health care costs — that the city faced similar challenges last year, said city spokesman Philip Given.

Last year that work was done behind the scenes, but this year the administration is trying to lay out the budget issues and potential options publicly, he said.

Continuing to take from city savings may work for one more year, but it is not a sustainable option moving forward, Helfrich said.

In fact, it appears the money borrowed last year to cover health care needs to be replaced this year — to the tune of $1.8 million. 

To balance the budget, it is almost inevitable that the city will have to either raise taxes or reduce staff in the future, the mayor said. 

"The total health care is based on the number of employees we have and their families ... and the health care is what is really uncontrollable right now in this budget," he said. 

Helfrich added that he is open to hearing other options, from both the public and city council. 

He  said the city is looking to cut costs in other ways and encouraged City Council to continue considering a plan with York Water Co. that he said could save the city more than $100,000. 

The plan would shift in-house sewage and refuse billing to York Water Co. City Council members stalled the plan in a late-October meeting, stating they needed more details before voting. 

More:York City Council stalls York Water Co. sewage billing agreement

Fire budget: Another change the city is considering to save money going forward is budgeting for seven new firefighters in 2019. 

In 2018, there were times the department was filling entire shifts with firefighters working overtime, pushing firefighters to their limits, said Fire Chief David Michaels. 

York City Fire Chief David Michaels gives residents and update on the Weaver building fire and investigation during Mayor Michael Helfrich's first Neighborhood Chat at the Door of Salvation Development Center, Tuesday, April 10, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello photo

The 2018 adjusted budget allocated $950,000 for overtime; the department is projecting more than $1 million in overtime costs by the end of the year. 

By budgeting for additional firefighters, at a lower incoming salary, the city will save in overtime costs, Helfrich said.   

The 2019 draft budget allocates about $550,000 for overtime costs in the fire department. 

" (We) found a way that we can have more staffing, which is better fiscally and better for the mental and physical health of the firefighters," the mayor said. 

The change will start to pay off in 2019, but larger savings will be seen in 2020, Michaels said.

The fire department also is looking to save money by outsourcing its fuel, the chief said. 

The department had been using fuel from the highway garage and faced issues with water and algae in the fuel, Michaels said.

The department experimented with getting off-site fuel and saw maintenance costs drop, he said. 

There is $47,000 allocated in the 2019 draft budget for fuel, whereas last year's budget had no funds allocated. By increasing funding for better fuel, the department is able to keep its maintenance fees a flat $75,000, Michaels said. 

The department's newest vehicle is a decade old, and its oldest is from 1983, he added.

The department is not asking for funds for a new vehicle this year, but it is in the process of putting together a 30-year plan that would include a better process for rotating vehicles, he said. 

Police budget: In the police department, the 2019 draft budget allocates funds for 100 officers, down from 105 this year, said Chief Troy Bankert. 

Although there would be fewer officers on the force, the city would still see more boots on the ground in 2019, he said.

York City Police Chief Troy Bankert speaks during the memorial service for Alex Sable, a York City Police Officer and former Marine, at Utz Arena Friday, May 18, 2018. Sable was participating in a SWAT tactical training exercise Sunday, May 6, in Baltimore County, Maryland, when he suffered cardiac arrest. About 1,000 people, including law enforcement and fire personnel, attended the service. Bill Kalina photo

While there were 105 officers budgeted for 2018, there were only about 85 operational officers during the year because of officers on salary while in training, he said. 

This week, the department will have four officers out of field training, Bankert said. More will enter active service in April, he said. 

Centralizing services: Another way the city is looking to save costs in this year's budget is by centralizing certain costs across departments, such as office supplies, janitorial supplies and book subscriptions. 

It is a continuation of an effort started by the previous administration, though Helfrich said he has mixed feelings regarding its benefits. 

By centralizing costs, you "lose track of some of what people are spending," he said. 

The city will monitor these changes over the next year and evaluate benefits, he said.