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York City Council president: Chances of budget deal are slim

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York City Council President Henry Nixon speaks during a town hall meeting concerning Mayor Michael Helfrich's hiring of Blanda Nace as chief opportunity development officer, Monday, June 24, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

There is a slim chance York City will be able to avoid a significant tax hike and job cuts after a single vote Tuesday evening killed a potential deal,  council President Henry Nixon said.

Nixon's comments on Wednesday came after council member Edquina Washington the day before had opposed a budget vote because the proposal, which would have flattened taxes, hinged on the sale of the city's wastewater system for $235 million that the council has yet to approve. 

That means the city could default to Mayor Michael Helfrich's proposed budget — including a 48% tax hike, a variety of fee increases and a reduction of 21 workers — unless Helfrich and council members can reach a deal prior to Dec. 31. 

"I'd say there's a glimmer (of hope)," Nixon said when asked about the likelihood council could hash out a deal by the next and final meeting on Tuesday. "But only a glimmer."

More:York City Council member scuttles sweeping budget overhaul

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

On Tuesday night, the amended $116.8 million budget, which included the yet-to-be finalized privatization of the wastewater treatment plant and sewer system, failed in a 3-1 vote, with Washington being the only dissenter. As an amendment that would have increased line items, it required four affirmative votes to pass.

However, due to "health issues," Nixon said, council member Judy Ritter-Dickson could not attend Tuesday's meeting.

It's not clear whether Ritter-Dickson will be present at next week's meeting, and she did not respond Wednesday to inquiries for comment.

When reached Wednesday, Helfrich said he could not talk because, due to the Christmas holiday, city officials essentially only have two work days to scramble and conjure up a deal to tackle the city's $14 million deficit.

The mayor declined to answer questions about whether he believed any sort of deal would come to fruition, but he did say if the 9.25 mil tax hike was ratified, there would be no turning back in 2021 because tax bills go out in February.

"Once we set the tax rate and fee rates and things like that, that’s pretty much locked in,” he said.

The 9.25 mil increase would equate to a $925 annual tax increase on a home with an assessed value of $100,000, and an increase of $1,665 on property assessed at $180,000.

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

Washington did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment. On Tuesday night, though, she made it clear that a sale of the wastewater treatment system was not something she'd support, at least under the current circumstances.

During the meeting, she argued against hanging the city's budget on a sale that neither the city council nor the York City Sewer Authority had actually approved.

In addition, she alleged, city officials had no plans about how the money from the sale would be spent.

"In no way do I want to see a significant increase in our property taxes, but at the same time, I cannot vote on a budget that includes the possibility of the sale of the wastewater treatment plant that I am not in favor of and, in my opinion, is not real," Washington said.

Helfrich on Tuesday 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.

With $10 million still being needed to balance the budget, only $35 million would not be allocated. But those funds could be put  into short- or long-term investment accounts, he said.

Helfrich also shot down Washington's concerns that employees would lose their jobs, as all current wastewater employees would receive job offers to continue to work at the plant under new ownership, he said.

The $235 million offer in question came from Pennsylvania American Water, the largest publicly traded water utility company in the state. The company was the highest of four bidders, with its offer including $15 million up front.

The other three bidders were York Water Co., Florida-based NextEra Energy and Aqua America. The companies offered $180 million, $205 million and $235 million, respectively.

City Council has until Dec. 31 to pass a budget. But when members meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, a vote on a budget — whether it includes tax hikes or not — will occur, Nixon said.

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