York City Council OKs $235M wastewater plant deal

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

The York City Council on Tuesday approved the sale of its wastewater treatment system, green lighting a deal that avoids tax hikes and job cuts in the city's 2021 budget.

The $235 million deal with Pennsylvania American Water Co. was approved by a 4-1 vote. 

It now moves to the York City Sewer Authority Board. Authority vice chairperson Phil Briddell said the board is expected to vote on the matter on March 24, but he declined to say whether he believed there were enough votes to approve the sale.

City Council member Edquina Washington was the sole vote against the deal on Tuesday evening. Washington did not respond Wednesday to calls seeking comment.

"I feel fairly confident we will be doing the right thing, and it certainly will help to stabilize our finances going into the future," said City Council President Henry Nixon.

More:York City officials say opposition to wastewater sale won't thwart budget plans

If the city's sewer authority approves the deal, the state's Public Utility Commission would conduct a six-month review of the sale.

However, the PUC also will likely have to handle a protest from a coalition of local governments opposed to the sale, which could prolong the PUC review. 

The City of York's wastewater treatment plant Wednesday, March 3, 2021. The York City Council on Tuesday approved the sale of its wastewater treatment system. Bill Kalina photo

The York Area Regional Sewer Authority, consisting of Manchester, West Manchester, Spring Garden and York townships and North York borough, alleges that the privatization would result in significant fee hikes. 

The authority has for months lobbied York City to sell its treatment plant  — but not the entire system — to the authority.

Kelly Kelch, spokesperson for the regional authority, did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment. Late last month, though, he said the authority was discussing future action with an attorney.

Authority officials have said maintaining local control would prevent rate hikes, despite the fact that the contract with Pennsylvania American Water mandates a three-year moratorium on rate increases and states that any changes would be subject to PUC approval.

The sale of the wastewater treatment plant has become a defining moment for Mayor Michael Helfrich's first term in office, where he has overseen a city that for decades has struggled with skyrocketing pension and health care costs.

"I hope that the sewer authority will also find that this is the best direction for the city," said Helfrich, who declined to say whether he was confident the five-member Sewer Authority Board would approve the decision.

Initially, in a draft budget late last year that he called "horrible," Helfrich proposed raising property taxes by 48% and cutting 27 jobs, including police officer positions.

However, in a separate $116.8 million budget contingent upon the sale of the wastewater treatment system, officials were able to keep taxes at their current rates and salvage 21 of the 27 jobs on the chopping block.

The City Council approved the $116.8 budget on Dec. 30.

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