York City to pitch nearly $250M wastewater sale, but mayor might not be there

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

It was unclear Tuesday whether Mayor Michael Helfrich would attend two public meetings later this week at which his administration is expected to pitch the nearly quarter-billion-dollar sale of York City's wastewater treatment system.

The proposed privatization is among the most significant policy moves of Helfrich's three years in office. It has already been criticized by at least one member of York City Council and officials from multiple neighboring municipalities.

On Tuesday, Philip Given, Helfrich's chief of staff, said Helfrich would not attend the remote meetings, which are scheduled for Thursday via Zoom. But when reached by phone Tuesday, Helfrich said it is still possible he might join in on the two sessions, slated for noon and 6 p.m.

Helfrich, who is on vacation, has spearheaded the push to sell the city's sewer network, arguing it was necessary to avoid a 48% tax hike and to right the city's battered finances going forward.

Chaz Green, director of public works, has been tapped as acting mayor until Jan. 22 and will attend the meetings.

Helfrich said his legal and infrastructure aides are better positioned than he is to address questions about specifics of the proposed sale to high bidder Pennsylvania-American Water Co. 

“Chaz is more familiar with the issues of the wastewater treatment plant than I am,” Helfrich said Tuesday. “(Solicitor) Jason Sabol has been more deeply involved in the legal side of the deal. So I believe we are all in quite capable hands.”

More:York City avoids government shutdown, passes budget

The city's finance team and legal counsel will be joined by members of the Pennsylvania Economy League and representatives from Pennsylvania-American Water Co., which this past month bested three other bidders with its $235 million offer. 

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich

Helfrich's potential absence shouldn't pose an issue, said council member Lou Rivera, adding that he expects the meetings to go smoothly and be helpful to the public.

“This is something the administration came up with, and we thought it was a good idea prior to council voting on it,” Rivera said. “It’s important that the community and those who have questions attend those hearings.”

But the sale is not without controversy. A coalition of five municipalities, the York Area Regional Sewer Authority, has blasted the privatization effort, arguing it will ultimately result in higher sewer fees.

And City Council member Edquina Washington in late December initially balked at the proposal — resistance that could have resulted in a shutdown of city government — before relenting.

Washington did not respond Tuesday to repeated calls seeking comment.

Council President Henry Nixon and council member Judy Ritter-Dickson, who has been absent from discussions because of health issues, also did not respond Tuesday to calls for comment.

York City Council is expected to vote on the sale in early February, said Given.

Three votes on the five-member council would be needed to approve the sale. The York City Sewer Authority would then also need to approve the sale.

City Council members last month approved a budget contingent upon the sale, which plugged a $14 million deficit and avoided a 48% property tax hike, numerous fee increases and the loss of 21 jobs within city government. 

Meanwhile, the regional sewer authority, composed of five surrounding municipalities, continues to make its case for keeping the wastewater treatment plant, and only the plant, under the control of a local government agency. 

In a Jan. 5 statement, Timothy James, chair of the York Area Regional Sewer Authority, criticized the proposed deal because Helfrich's budget only accounted for $197 million of the sale price, leaving the remaining funds unaccounted for.

In response, Helfrich has said that he city would likely put remaining funds into short- or long-term investment accounts to bolster the city's economy, which has been hamstrung by rising pension costs and the COVID-19 pandemic.

As for concerns about potential rate hikes, the deal would also lock in rates for three years, city officials have said. As required by law, any changes after the fact would need approval from the state Public Utility Commission.

Those wishing to participate in the hearings can do so on Zoom at the following link: https://zoom.us/j/98804351062?pwd=ZTJ5L0U4c0VsZHBydk5xWjVmWGt3UT09

Questions can be submitted to wastewatersale@yorkcity.org.

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