York City plans to use COVID funding for renovation projects

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Just two weeks after unveiling its plan for federal COVID relief funding, the York City Council is moving forward with parts of that plan.

Several proposals, including renovations for several city landmarks, worth a combined $1.8 million will be considered at Tuesday night's meeting. The proposals are markedly similar to the plan Mayor Michael Helfrich proposed in December — which was rejected by most council members — albeit with larger amounts being proposed by the council.

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For now, key differences between the mayor's and council's plans for American Rescue Plan Act funding emerge in the area of public safety.

Helfrich wanted to spend money on co-responders, mental health professionals who would respond alongside officers, and so-called credible messengers, community members who work to divert youth from violence. So far, at least, the council has not announced any plans to spend money on those specific proposals.

The first proposal council members will consider Tuesday, put forward by Councilor Felicia Dennis, would allocate $285,000 total for upgrades to Bantz and Williams parks, as well as solar lights at Penn Park. The money would be portioned out as $100,000 each for upgrades at Bantz and Williams parks and $85,000 for the lights at Penn Park.

The second proposal, introduced by Councilor Edquina Washington, would devote $750,000 each to fund renovations at the Rex/Laurel Fire Station and the Penn Street Market.

York City Fire Department Chad Deardorff exits a truck at the Rex/Laurel Fire Station on South Duke Street Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. He is replacing Dave Michaels who retired recently after serving as chief since 2012. Bill Kalina photo

City officials have debated what to do with ARPA funding since last year, when the former City Council voted to strip out over $6.4 million in funding that Helfrich included in his original version of the budget.

The city's total share of ARPA funding is $35.3 million. It must be allocated by Dec. 31, 2024, and used by Dec. 31, 2026. 

More:Government shutdown averted as York City Council approves budget

In response to the council's action, Helfrich vetoed the 2022 budget, forcing the council to hold a special meeting just a day before the deadline to override that veto.

Funding for most of these projects were included in Helfrich's version of the budget, although the amounts set aside were different for some of the projects:

  • $100,000 for Bantz Park was included in Helfrich's budget, as was $85,000 for lights at Penn Park. Williams Park was not included in Helfrich's budget; instead, $100,000 was budgeted for Arles Park.
  • $325,000 apiece was included for Penn Market and Rex/Laurel Fire Station. The City Council's plan more than doubles both amounts, to $750,000, for a total of $1.5 million.

In an interview Monday, Helfrich said that funding for Arles Park is still on the table. However, he criticized the amount of funding devoted to Penn Market and Rex/Laurel under the council's plan.

Both projects already have $1.5 million in state grant funding that must be matched with local funding, the mayor said. His plan was to combine already budgeted funding with funding from foundations and philanthropic efforts.

"I should at least have an opportunity to save taxpayers money," Helfrich said. 

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

The ARPA funding, Helfrich said, is meant to energize and uplift the community.

"We just have two totally different philosophies about how this money can be spent and how it can be leveraged to turn it into more money," he said.

More:York City approves 2022 budget — without disputed federal funding

Washington, Dennis and Council President Sandie Walker did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

"ARPA funding will help families get back on their feet, repair infrastructure, improve public safety, support local businesses, and so much more — the possibilities are enormous," Walker said when the City Council revealed its plan for ARPA funding on Feb. 1.

York County Economic Alliance President and CEO Kevin Schreiber, left, York City Councilwoman Sandie Walker exits Sunrise Soap Company with Gov. Tom Wolf while Wolf was visiting York City to promote holiday shopping at local small businesses Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Wolf made several purchases from local shops in of York's Market District. Bill Kalina photo

Walker and Washington are the only two members of the current council who voted to remove Helfrich's planned expenditures from the budget. Councilor Lou Rivera abstained from those items but voted against the budget as a whole. Councilors Betsy Buckingham and Dennis are new councilors.

Tuesday's meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in the City Council chambers. As City Hall is still closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, attendance at the meeting will be via Zoom.

To watch the meeting through Zoom, follow this link: https://zoom.us/j/91462846649?pwd=bWR4R0lVM2Fpd3NoQVhUc3ZvSTRxZz09. The password for the meeting is 54321. Another way to participate is by calling 312-626-6799 and giving the passcode, which is also 54321. 

To provide a comment to the council, email the city clerk at dthompso@yorkcity.org. Those comments must be received by 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Oath of office dispute: After receiving emails and calls expressing concern over the fact that Helfrich had not taken a second oath of office within 14 days of the council's reorganizational meeting, the council said it had received two distinct legal opinions that it would turn over to the district attorney's and state attorney general's offices for review.

Kyle King, a spokesman for District Attorney Dave Sunday, said that, as of Monday, the office had not received an official complaint against Helfrich. An AG's office spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.