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York City Council still can't make a deal as budget deadline looms

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 again failed to reach a deal Tuesday night just two days ahead of the deadline to pass a 2021 budget, which could lead to a government shutdown if a deal isn't made by Thursday.

Instead, the council decided to continue the debate Wednesday afternoon.

Council member Edquina Washington reiterated her opposition Tuesday to a gambit played by Mayor Michael Helfrich, which essentially offered the council his draft budget, complete with a $48% tax hike, or a $116.8 million budget zeroed by the sale of the city's wastewater treatment system.

If a deal isn't made by Thursday, York City Hall would completely close and employees would not be paid. Emergency personnel, however, would remain operational, said Philip Given, Helfrich's chief of staff.

On Tuesday night, Washington argued for sweeping furloughs in order to avoid the boost in taxes, and even suggested seeking to place the cash-strapped city under state receivership via state Act 47. 

“The administration does not have a clear plan for spending these proceeds. My question is, are we going to pay down our debt?” Washington said of the proposed privatization of the city's sewer system.

More:York City Council president: Chances of budget deal are slim

More:OP-ED: York City’s mayor and council must listen to all options that benefit their residents

Pennsylvania-American Water, the highest of four bidders, offered $235 million for the system.

“The sale of the wastewater treatment (system) was the only thing that received significant support and could create the long-term financial changes we were really looking for,” Helfrich said.

Tuesday night was the second time in a week the City Council failed to garner the four votes necessary to amend Helfrich's draft budget. The motion failed Dec. 22 by a 3-1 vote, with council member Judy Ritter-Dickson absent due to illness.

Ritter-Dickson, potentially the deciding vote, was again absent Tuesday night. 

The City Council is scheduled to reconvene at 1 p.m. Wednesday. A failure to amend Helfrich's draft budget would lock the city into a 9.25 mill tax increase, and could result in more than 20 job cuts, Helfrich has said. 

Leading up to Tuesday's meeting, a recently formed regional sewer authority criticized Helfrich and the city council for allegedly fast-tracking a vote before residents could hear all of the options on the table.

The York Area Regional Sewer Authority, composed of five surrounding municipalities, intended to purchase solely the wastewater plant. It argued keeping it under local control would be the best bet to keep rates down.

"While the purchase price seems exceedingly attractive, please remember it is the users of the system (especially the city’s residents) who will be paying for the purchase price on top of Pennsylvania-America Water’s rate of return," wrote spokesperson Kelly Kelch in an op-ed published Monday.

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

During the Dec. 22 meeting, Washington argued against hanging the city's budget on a sale that neither the city council nor the York City Sewer Authority had actually approved.

Helfrich, though, 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, he said. But those funds could be put  into investment accounts, he said.

The other three bidders for the wastewater treatment system were York Water Co., Florida-based NextEra Energy and Aqua America. 

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