Citing legal reasons, York City refuses meeting with local sewer authority

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
The City of York's wastewater treatment plant.
Tuesday, August 25, 2020
John A. Pavoncello photo

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich on Wednesday panned members of a local sewer authority for repeatedly pushing to "illegally" cut a deal to purchase the city's wastewater treatment plant.

With bids to purchase the city's entire wastewater system due Wednesday afternoon, officials with the sewer authority criticized Helfrich for refusing to meet and negotiate over a purchase price for the plant, which is all the authority wants. 

Selling the city's sewer system as a whole, though, is key to avoiding a hefty tax hike and job cuts as the city faces a $14 million deficit, Helfrich has said. City officials were scheduled Thursday to review bids from potential buyers.

"Every member of the regional authority should be experienced enough in government to know what they're asking for is illegal," Helfrich said. "And if they know it and still do it, then it appears to be a devious attempt to undermine the RFP process."

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The York Area Regional Sewer Authority — made up of Manchester, West Manchester, Spring Garden and York townships and North York borough — was created with the intention of making an offer outside of the request for proposals process.

The authority has continuously requested meetings since board members from each municipality approved the authority's formation in September.

Helfrich and York City solicitor Jason Sabol, though, have said that any talks to hash out a deal while the proposal process was underway would be illegal under state law.

In a Wednesday news release, authority officials said they were unable to make a bid, under the city's RFP process, because the member communities were interested solely in the wastewater plant, not the entire sewer system.

Under the request for proposals, the entire system is for sale, not just the plant.

Still, authority spokesperson Kelly Kelch, manager of West Manchester Township, said Helfrich has refused to meet with the authority despite the fact it can purchase the treatment plant at a "fair market price" in 60 to 90 days.

“An authority provides local ownership and accountability which results in a heightened sensitivity to utility rates and annual increases. An authority is accountable to its customers, not its investors,” Kelch said.

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

City officials intend to continue with the request for proposals process, Sabol said.

On Thursday morning, the city is expected release the names of bidders, he said. Later Thursday, city officials are slated to meet to score the bids and begin discussions about whether any of the offers are suitable for the city.

Officials have said that the payment would need to be substantial enough to 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.

In addition, it would need to provide for a 20% property tax decrease for residents.

“We’d like to know by Friday if we’re in the ballpark of 'is this a serious idea' or not,” Sabol said. 

There is not a set date for the city to make a decision on whether to sell the wastewater system, but it is running out of time, as the York City Council must approve a budget by Dec. 31.

As it now stands, without a sale at the right price, the budget would boost property taxes by 9.25 mils. That would equate to a $925 annual tax increase on a home with an assessed value of $100,000.

The budget would also cut 27 jobs, nine of which are police officers.

Helfrich has attributed the city's poor financial standing to skyrocketing pension and health care costs. Tax revenue shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic have also been a key player.

Pension costs alone are expected to rise $4 million next year. As of last month, the city had also seen a $3 million decrease in earned income tax revenue.

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