York City avoids government shutdown, passes budget

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 avoided tax hikes, job cuts and a potential government shutdown Wednesday afternoon after council member Edquina Washington relented and supported a 2021 budget that assumes the sale of the city's wastewater treatment system. 

Washington has for a week been a critic of the plan, first put forth by Mayor Michael Helfrich, that would fund the city's $116.8 million budget without tax increases and job cuts. The alternative to selling the wastewater system, Helfrich has said, was a budget that would have hiked property taxes by 48% and eliminated more than two dozen jobs.

On Wednesday, Washington said the plan was "not the best" but that she would support it anyway.

The past week has seen a hectic rush to hammer out a deal before the Dec. 31 budget deadline and avoid a city government shutdown.

That followed a Dec. 22 meeting at which Washington voted against the plan to fund the city with the sale of the sewer system. Council member Judy Ritter-Dixon was absent due to illness, so the five-member body couldn't reach the four votes necessary to pass the plan. A similar scenario played out Tuesday night, leading to Wednesday's special meeting, where the budget ultimately passed in a 4-0 vote.

Ritter-Dixon was again absent Wednesday.  

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.

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

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

The budget's passage means numerous fee increases will be averted and 21 of the 27 jobs proposed for elimination, including those of nine police officers, were salvaged. 

Those cuts, along with Helfrich's proposed 9.25-mill tax hike, were meant to fill a $14 million shortfall, the mayor said. 

Leading up to Wednesday's meeting, a recently formed regional sewer authority criticized Helfrich and the 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 that keeping the plant under local control would be the best bet to keep rates down.

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

Helfrich, though, said 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.