York City Mayor Michael Helfrich's first year graded - from B to D

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch
York City Mayor Michael Helfrich waits as community members gather to pay their respects as the funeral procession for York City fallen firefighter Zachary Anthony, 29, crosses George Street on Philadelphia Street in York City, Thursday, March 29, 2018. Anthony was killed in the line of duty March 22. Dawn J. Sagert photo

If York City Mayor Michael Helfrich had to offer a report card based on his first year in office, he said he'd give himself mostly B's: a B in community outreach, a B in economic development and a B in general administration. 

On the 2019 budget, he'd give himself a C-, he said. 

However, the low mark comes with the caveat that he was unaware until late September of the actual state of the city's finances, he said. 

"We were working under certain assumptions about the budget, and we found out late in September that the past administration had actually borrowed, or had been spending money out of the savings account, to support some of their initiatives, including the 4 percent tax cut," Helfrich said.

"And while I completely support any tax cuts we can get, you can't sustain a tax cut by using money out of your savings," he added.

In 2016 former Mayor Kim Bracey launched Vision 2020, a five-year plan to reduce real estate taxes by 15 percent. Bracey's administration had cut property taxes by 3 percent in 2017 and 4 percent in 2018. 

Bracey said Helfrich's account of how the tax cuts were made is not true. 

She said the city's five-year plan showed where the funding was coming from and was "very transparent" on the city website. 

City spokesman Philip Given said in the first few years of the plan, in order to deliver the smaller tax cuts, the city was able to make negotiations with unions and the school district to increase revenue and decrease expenses. 

"In the case of (the 2018) budget year, it doesn't appear they were able to do that effectively enough to deliver that tax cut," he said.  

The 2018 budget was created with former business administrator Michael Doweary, who resigned in July, and Helfrich noted the city will soon be hiring a replacement.

Doweary said the city did not use money from the risk-management fund for tax cuts in 2018 but did take from that fund to help offset some of the projected insurance increases. 

He also said that Helfrich was aware of this as City Council president.

"Whatever was done with the 2018 budget he signed off on it; he didn't just find out here in December of 2018," Doweary said. 

Tommy Williams has been the acting business administrator since Doweary's departure, but the city has narrowed  the search to fewer than 10 candidates, Helfrich said. 

"I really hope to bring in an expert in business administration that will help me bring that C minus up to an A," he said. 

'Huge disappointment': York City Council President Henry Nixon said he was disappointed to see Helfrich discontinue the tax rate decreases started by his predecessor.

Nixon added that after serving six years on council, he thought Helfrich would have had a plan for even greater tax decreases than Bracey was carrying out. 

Nixon said he'd grade Helfrich's first year as an overall D. 

"I think it's been a huge disappointment to me," he said. "I don't think anything's been accomplished." 

York City Council members, from left, H. Michael Buckingham, Vice President Sandie Walker, President Henry Nixon, Judy Ritter-Dixon and Edquina Washington take the stage during a York City Council Town Hall Meeting at Logos Academy in York City, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Helfrich said he would love to see a reduction in taxes, however he noted borrowing from city savings is not a sustainable way to do so.  

"If you start using your savings to pay your bills you're going to run out of savings very rapidly," the mayor said. 

Helfrich also said he apologizes for "springing the budget hearings" on council. When he became aware of the current state of finances, the administration kept delaying the hearings to try and have a better budget to present, he said. 

Nixon also said he doesn't think there's been much of an effort on the administration's part to work with council throughout the year. 

"A lot of larger initiatives that he's tried, he's sprung on council at the last minute ... and had very little information to help us make a decision and make sure we were going on the right track," Nixon said.

Councilman H. Michael Buckingham also said that communication with council could have been better but added that it improved as the year went on. 

"It's his first year; there's a pretty steep learning curve," Buckingham said. "I think things are getting better in general." 

Helfrich agreed he needs to find a way to communicate better and earlier with council. 

"And I hope the City Council members will more frequently take up our offers to meet with them so we can have more scheduled and more frequent communication," he added. 

Council members Sandie Walker, Judy Ritter-Dickson and Edquina Washington did not return calls for comment. 

Buckingham said he'd grade Helfrich's first year a C+, "mostly because some of the things he wants to do haven't rolled out yet." 

"I like the way he's thinking outside the box with some of his initiatives," the councilman said. "I think they've been a bit slow to roll out. I'm not sure that's his fault or not." 

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Economic development: Going forward, Helfrich said, the city needs to make major changes in 2019 to help its financial situation. 

To do that, the city needs to cut expenses and increase revenue.

The city already cut expenses to the bone, reducing them in the 2019 proposed budget by $800,000, he said. 

To increase revenue, the city needs to raise the property values of businesses in the city, which is a focus for 2019, he said. 

"When you have higher-paying jobs, we automatically get more money from the income taxes, when you have higher-producing businesses, we get more money from the business privilege taxes, and when we increase the value of the city, we get more money from property taxes," Helfrich said. 

"All of these things are the win-win solutions to advancing the city," he added. 

The city isn't just focused on bettering downtown businesse, but also businesses outside of the Central Market district, which tend to be more racially diverse in ownership, Helfrich said.

The city entered into an agreement with Downtown Inc to offer support services to businesses all along Market Street, he said. 

"Many people have dreams about business and go into business but don't always have all the background to make sure that a business keeps running successfully," the mayor said. "We want to increase our long-term success rate for these businesses." 

York County Economic Alliance CEO and President Kevin Schreiber did not return a request for comment regarding Helfrich's impact on economic development in his first year in office. 

The aid to minority-owned businesses is just one way Helfrich said his administration has made strides in helping minorities in the city.

The city is also looking into the HUB Zone initiative, a voluntary program where businesses agree to purchase a certain amount of supplies from minority-owned businesses, Helfrich said. 

He also noted the addition of a Latino, fluent Spanish-speaking executive in the mayor's office to help with customer service and communication with the Latino community. 

There is also a Spanish-speaking police chief in York City, Helfrich said. 

"When I came into office, basically the only people that spoke Spanish were the people that would give you fines and the people that would take your money at the window," he said. 

Lou Rivera, chairman of Latinos Unidos, said Helfrich has always been an advocate and supporter of the Latino community. 

However, there is always more work to be done, Rivera said. 

"In terms of a grade, with regards to the Latino community, I would give him a C," he said. 

Lou Rivera, chairman of the local Latino advocacy nonprofit Latinos Unidos, announces his candidacy for York City Council during First Friday Latinos outside CASA's York City welcoming center Friday, Oct. 5, 2018. Bill Kalina photo

Rivera said during Helfrich's campaign, the mayor mentioned he would hire more Latinos in City Hall and all departments. 

"I guess that's work in progress," he said. "I'm hopeful. You gotta stay positive. We’re not where we should be, but I'm hopeful."

Rivera also recently announced he would be running for a spot on the York City Council in 2019. 

York NAACP President Sandra Thompson did not return a call for comment regarding the mayor's first year in office and his impact on the black community.  

Decreasing unemployment: Helfrich also noted upcoming plans to minimize the unemployment rates in the city. 

York City has an unemployment rate of between 8 percent and 9 percent — more than double the county's approximately 3.6 percent unemployment rate, he said. 

The issue isn't a lack of jobs, according to Helfrich.

There are plenty of businesses hiring and looking for skilled labor; however, there are barriers preventing some city residents from learning new skills, he said.  

"When you're in poverty, everything's a barrier — $1,000 tuition is a barrier," Helfrich said. 

The city is working with the Salem Square Community Association and Johnson Controls to set up a new trade school. 

The city also is looking to work with secondary educational institutions and the York City School District to bring secondary education classes into the city neighborhoods, making learning accessible to residents, Helfrich said.

The initiative would be helpful particularly for single parents, he said, adding that Latina women are one of the highest underemployed groups in the city. 

"If we can set up classrooms for secondary education, including English as a second language, right next to where we're having activities for the kids, then people, particularly single moms, would be able to come in and have their kids in a safe place nearby while they are furthering their education and improving their marketability in the job market," the mayor said.

One challenge Helfrich said he faced in office is that as a candidate he had progressive initiatives he wanted to implement.

In some cases, those changes can be "painfully slow," especially while running  a "$100 million business with over 350 employees," he said. 

— Reach Rebecca Klar at rklar@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @RebeccaKlar_