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Helfrich: Toomey 'was just wrong' to ax lending from COVID-19 package

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
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

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey botched the opportunity to help struggling municipalities such as York City by leading the charge to strip emergency lending in the most recent COVID-19 relief package, Mayor Michael Helfrich said Tuesday.

The Senate on Monday approved the $900 billion package in a 92-6 vote following months of partisan gridlock that left the country without additional pandemic aid. But the removal of $400 billion in Federal Reserve lending, an effort led by the Pennsylvania Republican, killed any chances of direct aid to municipalities.

While the bill on Tuesday moved to President Donald Trump's desk, the president in a Twitter video later that day indicated he may not sign the bill because it failed to provide enough direct aid to individual citizens.

"I work with Sen. Toomey's office on other issues, and on this one, he is just wrong," Helfrich said. "Many other businesses receive relief for lost revenue. But we, the entity that is responsible for trying to keep people safe, for paying for firefighters and police officers, are left with the inability to pay our bills."

More:Coronavirus pandemic: Here's what York County's data looks like

More:EDITORIAL: Toomey's misplaced priorities

Toomey made national headlines late last week after he became the lead figure in a GOP push to halt the $400 billion in Federal Reserve emergency lending that was established in March through the CARES Act.

Toomey argued the economy was strong enough to render the program unnecessary.

He also emphasized that the program needed to be halted to prevent Democrats from repurposing funds to bolster local governments that have been battered economically, something Helfrich said was necessary as his city faced a $14 million budget deficit.

"Democrats wanted to use the emergency lending facilities as a slush fund," Toomey tweeted on Tuesday.

But local officials have said that aid was critical. As early as August, when Toomey visited York City, both Helfrich and York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler, a Republican, pleaded with the senator to advocate on Capitol Hill for aid for local governments. 

“Certainly we were cautiously optimistic that the local municipalities would get some funding,” Wheeler said Monday. “I am very disappointed that the local municipalities were not included.”

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., departs after the Republican Conference held leadership elections, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Across the country, local officials and governors from heavily urban, primarily Democratic states have called for federal aid amid flagging tax revenues and discussions about significant cuts to programs. But Senate Republicans have consistently rejected any form of bailout within COVID-19 packages. 

State revenues in Pennsylvania in 2020, for example, fell short by more than $3 billion compared with projections, shortfalls officials blamed on the pandemic, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

Throughout York County, school districts and local governments are dipping into their reserves in an effort to avoid significant property tax hikes while unemployment remains stubbornly high. 

Helfrich, too, has been vocal about the necessity for aid as the city year after year struggles to pass balanced budgets due to skyrocketing pension and health care costs. The COVID-19 pandemic has hamstrung its finances even further.

For example, the city has seen a $3 million decrease in earned income tax revenue, and pension costs alone are expected to rise $4 million in 2021.

York County President Commissioner Julie Wheeler, front, speaks while City of York Medical Director Dr. Matt Howie looks on at the York County Administrative Center in York City, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. The recent uptick in positive COVID-19 testing, specifically at York County Prison, was addressed. Dawn J. Sagert photo

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