York city talks budgets — for five hours

It was somewhere around the third hour of Thursday’s York City Council budget meeting, when one newspaper reporter in attendance said on Twitter it was time to order some Chinese food.

York City Council hosted a marathon budget meeting on Thursday night during which the council spoke with staff as part of the 2013 budget process. Here, Michael O’Rourke, city business manager, talks to the council, somewhere around hour four.

Three hours, the reporter explained, is about the mark where one’s mind starts to fade during that sort of number-crunching marathon. Time to eat, so what will it be?

City officials and the rest, though, got no such break. And the meeting carried on, with the council eventually adjourning just after 11 p.m., five hours after the talks started.

Topics ranged from the staffing practices for first responders to business office personnel to the city-sponsored TV station that showed the whole thing live Thursday night. Opinions varied. Voice were raised.

Here’s some of it.

Human Relations Commission

The night began with a presentation from Ralph Serpe, a board member with the Human Relations Commission. Serpe was asked to attend after the council raised numerous questions about the commission at the first budget hearing.

The HRC has had financial struggles, necessitating a pair of budget transfers by the city council this fall amounting to more than $20,000. That money was needed to pay salaries for the commission’s two-full time employees. (It was federal money, not city money, officials have said.)

The HRC’s board also recently placed executive director Stephanie Seaton on paid administrative leave, pending an investigation of her old case files.

Human Relations Commission executive director Stephanie Seaton, recently placed on paid administrative leave, speaks at the York City Council budget hearing.

Thus, some of the confusion from city council members, who asked how they could judge the appropriate funding levels with the organization in such disarray.

“I’m hesitating giving money to something where we don’t even know what it’s going to be,” Councilwoman Renee Nelson said.

What is clear is a precipitous drop in funding in recent years for the commission, which investigates discrimination and hate crimes.

Mayor Kim Bracey’s proposed budget lowers HRC funding from $169,000 to $150,000. It zeroes out commission line items including postage, printing and other office necessities.

According to Councilman Michael Helfrich, the commission’s budget has been cut in half — from just over $300,000 — since 2010.

Serpe said the funding changes, and particularly the items removed from the budget, are “not OK.”

“It certainly makes the day-to-day difficult,” he said.

Soon enough, though, Serpe found himself under fire from Helfrich, who asked how the council could judge the appropriate funding level.

Helfrich also asked where the cash-strapped commission is finding the money to pay for the external audit of Seaton, which is likely forthcoming.

Serpe said the money is coming from the commission’s professional services fund, and from its unrestricted funds. He said further that the audit is necessary to keep citizens’ confidence in the organization.

He couldn’t say how much it would cost.

“Our intention is to ensure we are serving the people of York, that we are doing what we say we do,” he said.

Seaton was also at the meeting, and spoke during the allotted public comment period.

The mayor’s office is “piece-by-piece dismantling” the commission, Seaton said, before urging the council to take a closer look.

After a lengthy discussion, the issue was left hanging, albeit with clear concern from some on the council.

“I’m not comfortable at all with this,” Helfrich said.

 

Fire and Police

Acting Fire Chief David Michaels and Police Chief Wes Kahley each took a turn before the council, answering questions that in both cases focused mostly on staffing levels, overtime and miscellaneous expenditures.

Michaels seemed to take the worst of it.

Fire and police officials prepare for presentations at the York City Council budget hearing.

Or at least of the two, there were more questions raised about the current level of staffing in the fire department, which under the proposed budget would enter 2013 with 59 full-time firefighters. That’s down from 64 at the start of 2012, after several firefighters retired.

“This is something I’m really concerned about,”Helfrich said. “I’m concerned we may have pushed it a little too far.”

Helfrich raised the possibility of more staffing — and by extension expense — but at least one councilman suggested another fix: fewer fire trucks on the street.

Councilman Henry Nixon asked Michaels about the possibility of removing one in-service firetruck for short periods of time. Michaels had said at any given time the city runs three hose trucks and one ladder truck. (He also said that’s well below the levels recommended by one national fire association.)

Nixon asked: Couldn’t we remove one truck, even for just a shift, to save some cost?

Michaels said he would “highly recommend” keeping all those engines available 24 hours a day.

Kahley also defended staffing in the police budget, and he answered questions about a jump in rental fees. That’s because police will need storage space during the ongoing upgrades at the police station, he said.

The strongest exchange with police came when Kahley said that controversial license-plate scanners have for some time been installed on city police cruisers. They are not yet being used, though, the chief said, and technical problems are still being worked out.

So, too, is the city’s official policy on the scanners, which will deal among other things with privacy rights and how the information is stored.

Manuel Gomez, a frequent commenter at meetings, urged police to disclose more information and to quickly get a policy in place. He’s been calling for such measures for more than a year, he said.

 

Business Administration

Some of the night’s most heated words came toward the end of the five-hour meeting, during the budget discussion for business administration, which covers a wide array of city departments.

This image shows council members Michael Helfrich and Renee Nelson minutes before the York City Council budget hearing. Just over five hours later, it ended.

Chief among the trouble spots was talk of White Rose Community Television, the city-sponsored station that broadcasts public meetings and other local content.

Helfrich and Council President Carol Hill-Evans questioned the city’s continued financial support of the station. The city will contribute more than $50,000 again this year in support, Helfrich said, after station fundraising money came in well under par.

Helfrich asked: Why should taxpayers have to help fund the station?

Michael O’Rourke, city business manager, replied the station is important because it puts government before the people, and is a vital link between city hall and the citizens.

“It’s worth it (even) if we had to pay for the whole thing,” he said during a back-and-forth with Helfrich. “That’s my opinion.”

O’Rourke took questions on other matters, including the mayor’s proposal to hire an assistant business administrator.

The city has budgeted $55,000 for that position, though O’Rourke said the number is only a partial-year “placeholder” to get the ball rolling, and would likely rise. The question is: by how much?

O’Rourke couldn’t say, but council members kicked around the idea of paying about $70,000 for such a position. And they expressed concern about how it could rise more in future years.

“I just don’t want it to be $90,000, something like that,” Helfrich said.

 

More to come

Much of the discussion this week was left unsettled.

The city council has the power to change line items in the mayor’s budget, something that, if it’s to happen, will likely happen at a meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 11, Hill-Evans said. From there the mayor can veto those changes. And with enough votes, the council can override the veto.

Council members have joked throughout the process that this has been a relatively easy budget season. Unless something changes, a final budget should be adopted by the middle of the month.

But when you think about it, all those hours of discussion so far really don’t mean too much in relation to the final budget. That is, council members still have to wade through all that talk and choose what they think needs to be changed, and then they have to gather enough votes to get it done.

Seems like that’s still going to take some time.

Yet by the end of next week’s meeting, at least we’ll know a little more about what each member of the council is willing to support. As for the rest of us in attendance, well, I can only speak for myself.

If asked, I plan to support a spring roll, and some vegetable lo mein.

About Tim Stonesifer

Tim Stonesifer is the York city reporter for the York Daily Record/Sunday News. Email him at tstonesifer@ydr.com, call 771-2032 or follow him on Twitter @timstonesifer.
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