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York City Council member scuttles sweeping budget overhaul

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York City Council members, from left, President Henry Nixon, Judy Ritter-Dixon and Edquina Washington participate in a York City Council town hall meeting at Logos Academy in York City, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York City Council member Edquina Washington on Tuesday torpedoed a vote that would have prevented a 48% property tax hike and nearly two dozen job cuts, citing opposition to selling the city's wastewater treatment plant.

City Council in a 3-1 vote failed to pass an amended 2021 budget that was predicated upon the sale of the wastewater system for $235 million, which York City Mayor Michael Helfrich proposed to a mostly approving council. Four votes were needed to pass the budget amendments, but council member Judy Ritter-Dickson was not in attendance.

City Council called a recess until Dec. 29 in an attempt to hash out members' differences. A budget must be approved by Dec. 31.

“We are voting on a smokescreen budget in my opinion," Washington said. “I’m opposed to the sale, but more importantly, along with that, is that there is no clear financial plan."

More:At least $175M offered for York City's wastewater system

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

Washington griped that the amended budget, which would have kept taxes flat and saved about 20 jobs, was dependent on the sale of the wastewater treatment system. But neither City Council nor the York City Sewer Authority had actually approved the privatization.

More importantly, she alleged, was the fact that city officials had no plans about how the money from the sale would be spent.

Helfrich, however, argued that Washington was given plenty of details about the financial plans and that the amended budget had already accounted for more than $190 million of the sale price.

The only unaccounted money not accounted for was the cash left over from the sale, stemming from an offer significantly higher than what city officials expected, he said. Helfrich said the city would likely have put the remaining funds into short- or long-term investment accounts.

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

“How could we have a plan to invest that money without knowing that bonus money was going to come in?” Helfrich said. “I believe that we did supply with you a solid plan that specifies very much that this money is not going to be used to put up a new stadium or something. This is money for the long-term stability of the City of York.”

The $116.8 million budget that was on the table would have prevented a property tax hike by 9.25 mils that Helfrich first proposed last month in his draft budget.

The budget's passage would have also avoided numerous fee increases and saved 21 of the 27 jobs — nine of which were police officer positions — that were on the line as the city faced a $14 million deficit.

If council members are unable to hash out a new deal, they would have to pass the draft budget that Helfrich himself has called "terrible." The tax hikes, 27 job cuts and a variety of fee increases would then be in place for 2021.

City Council President Henry Nixon said that a failure to implement the cost-cutting measures would erase decades worth of advances in the city.

“We’re looking at a 48% tax increase because of that no vote,” Nixon said. “And fee increases. And I’m very disturbed by that.”

Helfrich went into the meeting hoping to convince council members to get on board with privatizing the wastewater treatment system through a sale to Pennsylvania American Water, a subsidiary of New Jersey-based American Water.

Pennsylvania American Water, the largest publicly traded water utility company in the state, offered $235 million for the wastewater system, including a $15 million up-front payment upon the completion of an asset purchase agreement.

City officials first announced Friday that they had selected a buyer for the wastewater system.

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