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York OKs property tax, utility rate increases

The city of York will increase property taxes and utility rates and hire a new police officer, a firefighter and a part-time economic development director under a $6.9 million budget approved by the City Council.

After a lengthy debate in which council members disagreed about the need to add more employees and increase taxes, the council split 4-3 in giving final approval to the 2014-15 budget. The budget year begins Oct. 1.

Council members John Shiflet, Ed Brown, Charles Johnson and Denise Lowry voted in favor of the spending plan, while Mayor Eddie Lee and council members Bill Miller and Mike Fuesser voted against it.

The budget includes a property tax increase that equates to $9 more for the owner of a $100,000 home.

The $3.2 million utility budget, also approved by the council, includes a 5 percent monthly water/sewer increase that amounts to about $2.04 more each month for a typical household that uses 6,000 gallons of water.

The utility budget also includes a 75-cent increase in fees for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control for water testing.

Helms recommended a reduced utility fee increase, from a preliminary budget approved by the City Council on Sept. 2, after several council members expressed concern about the double impact of tax and utility fee increases on residents and businesses.

Helms said he reduced the water and sewer fee increase from 10 percent to 5 percent by adjusting the repayment schedule for a $4.2 million utility bond issued in 2009.

The adjustment “will allow for a lower payment for the next three years; hopefully, during that time the customer base will grow, which will help with the larger payments beginning in 2018,” he wrote in a memo to the council.

The new hires, which include a police officer and a firefighter, will be made at the middle of the budget year, around April, Helms said. Helms said council members asked to delay the hiring for about six months to minimize the impact of new salaries on the budget.

Helms said the budget also includes about $26,000 for the city to demolish derelict housing, a concern raised by Johnson and supported by other council members.

Shiflet led the move to hire an economic development director. He said that person would help the city develop a strategy to increase development that will bring in more tax revenue and jobs.

During a public hearing before the vote, residents and business people shared their views.

Mike Wiley, owner of White Rose Realty, said he opposed new taxes and adding more employees “until things get a little bit better.”

Robert Winkler, who represented the Greater York Chamber of Commerce, said that group voted in support of an economic development position. He said the chamber did not take a position on a tax increase.

Winkler said the chamber has identified 350 acres zoned industrial that could be sold to form an industrial park.

“We think an economic development person in the long run could pay for themselves,” Winkler told the council. “We feel like we’ve gotten as far as we can without the city putting in that part-time economic development person.”

Mike Diamond, another York businessman, opposed adding an economic development job and opposed higher taxes.

“I think you will be wasting your time and your money,” Diamond said about the job.

In voicing his opposition to higher taxes, Diamond added: “I would take a hard look at raising the taxes. It’s hard times here for a lot of people. A lot of people here just can’t afford it.”

Wiley and several council members asked if Helms and planning director David Breakfield could handle the economic development duties.

But Shiflet argued that neither Helms nor Breakfield has the time or expertise to do that. “My goal is to get this in the budget so we can move forward with someone who is going to put this on their agenda,” Shiflet said.

Miller, a local business owner, said business owners bear the brunt of the tax increase because most businesses are taxed at 6 percent of assessed value, while homeowners are taxes at 4 percent. “The business owner is the one that suffers,” Miller said.

Helms said he budgeted about $19,000 for half a year for the part-time economic development director, including salary, Social Security and workman’s compensation, he said.

He said he also budgeted a total of about $40,000, not including benefits, for half a year’s salary for both the full-time police and fire jobs.

The added police officer is planned to work in narcotics, and would bring to two the number of York police officers who serve on York County’s multijursdictional drug unit.

York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant and 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett have asked the city to add a second narcotics officer to step up law enforcement against illegal drugs.