York Water Co. President and CEO Jeffrey Hines (photograph: Yorkdispatch.com)
Punctuated at times by shouting, slapping of tables and banging of gavels, an animated West York borough council meeting Monday night saw an argument over the idea of turning to regional police and a York Water Co. proposal to buy the municipal sewer system.
Council president Garrett Wampler told the rest of the council members last month to have ideas ready for how to tackle what he and borough manager Kathy Altland have calculated to be an impending budget shortfall of about $500,000 for next year, with that number only increasing in the following years.
Wampler said near the start of the discussion that a complete merger with West Manchester Township — the option he said last month “could be the best long-term solution” of the possibilities available — was off the table.
“There is not mutual interest in doing that,” he said — that is, West Manchester Township doesn’t want West York to merge with it.
Other members threw out several ideas to balance the budget, which will be more than $2.8 million. Cut some support staff, such as the borough office’s janitor, and put up more parking meters, suggested councilwoman Mary Wagner. Try to track down people who weren’t paying the borough’s per-capita tax, and maybe see if there’s a way to levy a tax on renters, councilman Nick Laughman offered.
Councilman Brian Wilson said he doubted the deficit was as big as Wampler said it was and suggested they raise taxes by 2 mills and make up the rest piecemeal, while investing more money in the borough to draw businesses back in.
And then Wampler gave his suggestion: The borough should look into buying out the West York Borough Police Department and turn to a regional department, such as nearby Northern York County Regional Police. After the original buyout, which Wampler calculated would be about $2.1 million, the borough would likely be spending significantly less for police than it is now. Wampler said he thinks the borough would be able to lower taxes from 7.5 to 5.5 mills by 2017.
Other elected officials were not as enthusiastic.
“Crazy,” said Mayor Charles Wasko as several people began talking at once in response to this suggestion.
“I’m not eliminating any of our departments,” said Wilson, who said he and many other residents would be willing to pay more in taxes in order to keep their own department.
Presumably remembering Wampler’s assertion in July that Wampler would put his house up for sale if they had to raise taxes by 3 or 4 mills to fill the budget gap, Wilson said Monday night: “I’ll buy you a U-Haul so you can move.”
Wasko, Wilson and some residents worried about police response times and general quality of service from a different, larger department.
Officers Matthew Millsaps and Scott Musselman, who’s a police union steward, also spoke up adamantly against this idea.
Musselman said no one from the council had approached the union to try to work out ways to save money through changes to the contract. He said the union could be open to some “drastic revisions” of the union contract.
“Let’s try Plan A first, and talk to police,” before thinking about getting rid of the department, Musselman said.
Wampler said the borough’s on track to budget about $1.3 million for the department plus an additional $212,000 or so for pensions. Those combine for more than half of the municipal budget.
He said the council will meet with the union, as Musselman suggested, to try to work out sustainable cuts. The police department is made up of nine full-time and two part-time officers, Wampler said.
Jeff Hines, CEO of York Water Co., kicked off the meeting by suggesting the borough sell its sewer system to the company. The system would have to be bidded out — other entities could make offers, and the council would have the right to accept or reject any offers — but Hines said York Water would be interested in buying it.
He declined to estimate how much the company might bid, but Wampler said after the meeting that it seemed it would likely be around the $1 million mark.
The sewer system brings in only what it costs, so there would be neither yearly savings nor yearly loss from selling it, Wampler said.
The council responded very warmly to this idea.
“This’d take a lot of pressure off the borough,” Wampler said, as the buyer would be responsible for all repairs and billings.
Aside from the initial payment, this would free up what Wampler said was about $2.3 million in the sewer fund. That money could then be designated for something else.
For example, it could go toward filling a budget gap for a few years. But that money’s finite, so failing to do something major and structural to address the borough’s budget woes will just mean that a different council will have to deal with it in a couple of years, Wampler said.
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