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Wheeler, Helfrich beg Toomey for more federal COVID-19 aid

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

Local officials on Wednesday pleaded with U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey to push his colleagues on Capitol Hill to approve additional funding for local governments and small businesses battered by the coronavirus pandemic. 

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich and York County President Commissioner Julie Wheeler pressed the Republican during a stop at the York County History Center’s Agricultural & Industrial Museum in York City, where Toomey was joined by U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Carroll Township.

"I'm not hiring cops now because I have no money," Helfrich said. "They're retiring but I'm not hiring."

More:York County has 31 new COVID-19 cases, death toll stays at 116

More:York County OKs allotment plan for $14 million in CARES Act cash

Helfrich, who in May signed on to a letter with other mayors throughout Pennsylvania asking for $250 billion in federal aid for state and local governments, said that a lack of funding has left the city in a grim financial situation.

Grace Quartey, owner of Grace and Associates, a York accounting firm, speaks with York City Mayor Michael Helfrich after a forum sponsored by U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) Wednesday, August, 26, 2020,  with local economic leaders and business owners regarding the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on the economy. The event took place at the York County History Center’s Agricultural & Industrial Museum. Bill Kalina photo

More:Vote Smart: Pat Toomey

The city is facing revenue losses ranging from 5% to 10% because of the pandemic, Helfrich said. His administration estimated in April that it already faced tax revenue losses of $4.4 million.

And federal aid that has been allotted to York County comes with restrictions that leave the municipalities such as York City unable to utilize the funds to help plug their losses, he said.

Helfrich, a Democrat, also questioned Toomey's record, citing Toomey's position that federal aid should not go to cities and that it's up to the states to fund local governments.

Toomey countered by saying state governments should allot money because they know their municipalities better.

Kevin Schreiber, president & CEO of the York County Economic Alliance, left, speaks with U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) before a forum Toomey sponsored with local economic leaders and business owners Wednesday, August, 26, 2020. Toomey's forum focused on economic issues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The event took place at the York County History Center’s Agricultural & Industrial Museum. Bill Kalina photo

The Republican senator also noted that restrictions on the use of aid that initially was meant to reimburse COVID-19-related expenses were expected to be at least partially lifted by now but haven't been.

Still, offering local governments unchecked freedom in regards to how those funds are spent "doesn't seem quite right," he said.

"When we go back and say, 'OK, well now we'll change the rules, and do whatever you'd like with that money,' it's just a complete windfall for dozens of states," Toomey said. 

Wheeler, a Republican commissioner, also voiced concerns about how CARES Act funding distribution disproportionately benefited some counties over others.

York County President Commissioner Julie Wheeler. Bill Kalina photo

That's because, with a population of roughly 450,000, York County fell just short of the 500,000 threshold required to receive direct aid from the federal legislation passed in late March.

Although York County's population is about 83% of Lancaster County's, it received $40.5 million compared with Lancaster's $95 million. Five other counties also got direct aid that was substantially more than York's.

Wheeler also said the federal Paycheck Protection Program failed to reach too many small businesses that most needed it. 

"We have 14,836 businesses in York County. Ten thousand of those are small businesses," Wheeler said. "We anticipated that 70% of those 10,000 small businesses did not receive PPP."

In York County, at least $232 million in loans were doled out under the program. Of that, loans of less than $150,000 accounted for roughly $62 million, or 27%. About $170 million, or 73%, went to firms seeking more, often significantly more.

U.S. Congressman Scott Perry (R- Pa. 10) speaks during a forum sponsored by U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) with local economic leaders and business owners Wednesday, August, 26, 2020. Toomey's forum focused on economic issues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The event took place at the York County History Center’s Agricultural & Industrial Museum. Bill Kalina photo

"I was very surprised to hear 70% of small business did not get any PPP," Toomey said. "That is not what I've heard in other places."

York County last month resorted to setting aside $14 million of its CARES Act allotment to focus on small businesses, restaurants and not-for-profits.

Meanwhile, partisan gridlock in Washington over another wave of COVID-19 pandemic relief aid led President Donald Trump to sign an executive order earlier this month that included a payroll tax holiday, targeting funds that support Social Security.

Toomey said that he expects a deal on a new COVID-19 stimulus package will be reached in September.

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