Rising pension costs a key concern for York City Council candidates

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch

Rising pension costs are a cornerstone issue of 2019's York City Council election, one of the primary budgetary concerns waiting for whoever wins the three seats up for grabs. 

“I have no clue how we’re going to do it, but we have to work together — City Council, the mayor and his administration — because it is something that is a reality,” said Councilwoman Sandie Walker. 

Passing the budget is the council’s top responsibility. Four Democrats — council members Walker, Edquina Washington and Michael Buckingham and first-time candidate Lou Rivera — are running for the seats. 

The primary is May 21. There are no Republicans in the race. 

York City Police pension costs have fluctuated over the past five years, but police pension costs for 2019 are nearly double that of 2016 and 2017 — with the minimum municipal obligation for 2019, about $5.6 million, $52,216 more than in 2018. 

York City Councilwoman Edquina Washington is seeking reelection in the May 21 primary (Photo courtesy of Edquina Washington).

The issue is less of a concern for the York City Fire Department, where pension costs are not as steep when compared to those of the police department. Pension obligations for the fire department cost the city about $2.4 million in 2016, increasing by about $400,000 in 2017.

The fire union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 624, came to an agreement with the city to keep the minimum municipal obligation payments zero for 2018, 2019 and 2020. 

Washington said she's hopeful the city can come to further amicable agreements with the departments and unions to help alleviate the problem.

It's difficult to predict without knowing what lies in the future, she said, but Washington remains optimistic that all parties can create an agreement that will benefit the officers and the city. 

Sandie Walker, York City Councilwoman, received the Elected Official of the Year Award.

"Because we definitely need our police and definitely need our firefighters," she added. 

The issue is not unique to York — pension costs are plaguing municipalities across the state. York City has $73.8 million in unfunded pension liabilities, meaning liabilities are 59% funded, according to the state Attorney General's Office's most recent data from 2017. That makes up about 71% of all municipalities' unfunded pension liabilities countywide.

Walker said the city has to take proactive measures to prevent the rising costs, adding that the city will have to do its due diligence while evaluating plans.

Walker was elected to City Council in 2015, after serving six years on the York City school board. She is the only candidate to have been elected; Buckingham and Washington were appointed to their positions in 2018. 

York City Councilman Michael Buckingham is seeking reelection in the May 21 primary (Photo courtesy of Michael Buckingham).

“Some ideas may sound good, but if we’re not doing our research for projection and analysis, they’re just ideas,” she said.

Mayor Michael Helfrich broke from the prior administration's plan to cut real estate taxes through 2020, calling it unsustainable amid rising pension and health care costs. However, the 2019 budget kept taxes stagnant, and the Democrats running seem committed to not raising the city's already high taxes. 

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Buckingham said the city needs to find new and creative revenue sources to offset rising pensions without increasing taxes.

For example, the city could use an amnesty program to collect delinquent sewer and refuse accounts that currently approach $7 million, he said. The city can also implement the administration's plan, previously presented to the council, to contract sewer and refuse billing to the York Water Co., including delinquent accounts, 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 also said the council and administration must work together to find new revenue sources, and he suggested focusing on economic development "that will create an incentive to raise tax revenue in order to meet that loss." 

"What I've been saying is economic development, where people of color are included, to raise that tax revenue so that taxes aren't raised or people aren't losing their jobs at City Hall," he said.

Logan Hullinger contributed reporting to this story. 

— Rebecca Klar can be reached at rklar@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter @RebeccaKlar_.