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Helfrich's budget would hike York City taxes, cut police officers

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York City Mayor Michael Helfrich applauds graduates during the Crispus Attucks Charter School graduation ceremony in York City, Friday, July 24, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Mayor Michael Helfrich's draft budget would slash the number of York City Police officers by nearly 10% and significantly hike taxes.

But Helfrich said the city could avoid the "archaic" cuts and tax increases if it sheds its sewer system, a potential fix that members of the York City Council agreed could work if it sells for the right price.

Helfrich presented the outline of his $114 million proposed budget Tuesday night during the first of several meetings slated this week.

"The time we can no longer pay our bills has come," Helfrich told council members. 

More:Helfrich says brace for the worst ahead of 2021 budget hearings

Helfrich's budget would cut nine positions from the York City Police Department, which has roughly 100 officers. Attrition, not layoffs, would account for the reductions under the plan, said Philip Given, Helfrich's chief of staff.

The draft budget would boost taxes by 9.25 mils. That would equate to a $925 annual tax increase on a home with an assessed value of $100,000.

"That is a pretty substantial increase," said Shanna Terroso, executive officer with the Realtors Association of York & Adams Counties.

Anecdotally, Terroso said, residents selling their homes already cite the city's property taxes — which are the highest in the county — as their top reason for no longer wishing to live within city limits.

But City Council President Henry Nixon agreed with Helfrich that raising the property taxes may be the city's only hope at closing a budgetary shortfall.

“We’re in between a rock and a hard place,” Nixon said. “The only way we can raise money is through real estate taxes and fees. So here we are. That’s a foregone conclusion.”

The proposed budget would eliminate 27 positions across all departments, 15 of which are currently filled, Given said.

The proposed layoffs include two data entry clerks and a part-time community resource assistant at the police department, an equipment operator at the public works department and a clerk in the treasurer's office.

The budget would increase general fund spending to $53.6 million, a $4 million increase relative to the current budget cycle. 

But some departments would see cuts.

Helfrich would allocate $20.3 million to the police department, a reduction of $1.4 million. 

York City Councilman Henry Nixon gives the first responders memorial tribute during the 2016 Court of Valor & Safekeepers Shrine Ceremony with York's Observance of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 at Prospect Hill Cemetery in North York, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Helfrich has said an outdated tax system that relies too heavily on property values and residents' incomes, areas where York City now struggles, has stressed city finances for years.

Property tax revenue issues have been compounded by the fact that tax-exempt properties account for 40% of the real estate value in the city.

City revenues have further plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this year, it has no savings left to buoy the budget as it tries to plug a $14 million deficit.

The city has already seen a $3 million decrease in earned income tax revenue. And pension costs alone are expected to rise $4 million, Helfrich has said. 

Helfrich on Tuesday said he does have a backup plan to address the city's finances: selling the wastewater treatment system, which has been called a money pit by city officials.

"We would not be forced to make these archaic cuts, these tax increases and these fee increases, and we'd be able to give a 20% tax cut," Helfrich said.

York City's taxes are already substantially higher than those in most other communities throughout the county.

Helfrich, Nixon and council member Lou Rivera all agreed that in order for the sale to efficiently buoy the city's finances, the buyer would have to make a strong offer.

That offer would have to not only pay off the the city's roughly $17 million share of the total $37 million worth of improvements to the system over the next 10 years but also provide funds to further foster the local economy.

“While I don’t necessarily agree with the cuts or tax increases, if the selling of the treatment plant is a viable option, then that’s the way we might have to go,” Rivera said.

A collection of municipalities has expressed interest in the plant itself and formed a regional sewer authority in an effort to take it over. But Helfrich has said that they aren't going to acquire it without a "substantial financial payment."

The city in July published a request for proposals to sell the sewer system, but officials have not yet made a decision to sell.

City solicitor Jason Sabol said he expects to receive bids in mid-December.

Additional budget hearings were scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.

The City Council must approve next year's budget by Jan. 1.

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