York City's budget in limbo after rift between mayor, City Council

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

York City's $96.5 million budget remains in limbo amid an ongoing dispute over the use of federal aid dollars.

Mayor Michael Helfrich has 10 days to exercise his veto option. The city must have a budget by Dec. 31.

"I'm still weighing my options," the mayor said Monday.

Helfrich would not commit to approving or vetoing the budget the City Council passed on Dec. 21, saying he was on vacation and that he was still weighing his options.

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In a news release Monday, four of the five City Council members encouraged Helfrich to approve the 2022 budget before the end of the year. It marks the second major showdown over the budget in as many years.

"We must remain prudent in expending these funds and in managing initiatives established under those funds," the members said, in a written statement. "We cannot simply throw money at problems to solve them. We need lasting change."

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich speaks during a Community Violence Awareness Event at Lincoln Charter School Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. The event was sponsored by York City Police, the City of York, and The Movement. Bill Kalina photo

Helfrich's original budget proposal would have sent just over $6.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to various nonprofits in the city. Mayor Helfrich said the money was set aside to help the city grapple with homelessness and violence.

READ MORE: York City approves 2022 budget — without disputed federal funding

Instead, the majority of City Council members voted to strip away much of that funding, leaving only $195,725 of the funding and deferring a larger conversation about how to use the money. Councilman Lou Rivera abstained from the vote to amend the budget and later voted against the budget, saying the funding could end up contributing to his salary via the Spanish-American Multicultural Resource Center.

On Monday, Rivera said he didn't sign on to Monday's statement because he'd served on a committee that made recommendations to Helfrich regarding the ARPA funding.

"I would've voted no anyways, even if my organization hadn't received funding, because it was the right thing to do," Rivera said. "I think it would've sent the wrong message from someone sitting on the committee that I would have voted to approve a budget that didn't include this."

Helfrich, in advocating for including the federal dollars, made a public plea before the City Council meeting this month. He said the dollars would help stem the tide of violence in the city.

"We don't need any more young people dying while we're letting money sit in the bank that could be spent to help these young people and to help our community," he said at the time.

READ MORE: York City mulls $103M budget: Here's how you can weigh in

All five members responded to Helfrich's initial statement, accusing him of political opportunism. The dispute was reminiscent of last year's protracted budget process, in which a spending plan that included the controversial sale of the city's wastewater treatment system was approved just before a government shutdown.

On Monday, Council Vice President Sandie Walker noted that, with the exception of the federal dollars, the budget the council passed this year was otherwise identical to Mayor Helfrich's own proposal.

"So to not approve the budget would make no sense and would be fiscally irresponsible," she said.

Outgoing Council President Henry Nixon said there are higher priority city projects that the ARPA funding should be used for.

"We should not rush short sighted into spending these funds," Nixon said in the release. "We have several years to allocate the monies and spend it. This is money for the future health of our city, for our citizenry, for our visitors and for our businesses.” 

Matt Enright can be reached via email at metnright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.

READ MORE: Mayor, council spar over how to use $35M in federal funds