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York City will completely forgive the unpaid sewer and refuse bills of residents in poverty next year along with offering a healthy discount to others who have lagged behind on payments.

York City Council on Tuesday, Oct. 15, voted 4-1 in support of the amnesty program suggested by York City Mayor Michael Helfrich's administration. The move will affect roughly 2,500 properties in York City that owe money — or about 18% of all properties in the city.

"I have paid my bills and I'm not going to get any benefit out of this," York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said. "However, we also don't believe a retired person who is in their house who owes $5,000 should be kicked out of their house because they can't afford now to catch up on their bills."

York City has struggled with collecting sewer and refuse fees for decades, averaging a 70% collection rate and accumulating what is now more than $10 million in uncollected fees. In 2013, it also offered a scaled-back amnesty program for those behind on their bills.

Before the amnesty vote, Helfrich argued the issue presented council members with a choice: Either vote yes or kick residents out of their homes.

Councilwoman Judy Ritter-Dixon, who was the only member who opposed the measure, seemingly took offense to Helfrich's assertion.

"I'm not interested in kicking anybody out of their homes; I'm talking about the people who are below the poverty line who do pay their sewer bills," Ritter-Dixon said, to which Helfrich responded that sometimes there's no bonus to doing what's expected. 

Under the new program, a one-time, 100% forgiveness option is available for those who are at or below the federal poverty line and owe $250 or more in sewer and refuse bills. For example, a family of three that makes $21,330 or less annually would qualify under the federal standard. 

For the second option, any individual who owes more than $250 can receive 50% forgiveness. The third option offers a 120-month payment plan with 25% off the total money owed.

The administration has cited staffing and infrastructure limitations as the reason for its poor collection rate, and past administrations have tried the amnesty approach, although Helfrich asserted that none has been as generous as what passed Tuesday.

The amnesty program was approved along with a resolution moving sewer and refuse collection fees to the York Water Co. The council approved that resolution 3-2, with Ritter-Dixon and Edquina Washington voting against it.

The move is expected to bring in $3 million in revenue annually and be much more efficient with the company's expertise, proponents stated.

York Water Co. is tentatively set to take over sewer collections in April. The city's Finance Department expects to take applications for amnesty throughout March of next year, although the date could be subject to change.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.

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