Many more questions about Harrisburg’s proposed 2021 budget need to be answered before city council members approve it, but at least two members said they are hopeful there isn’t going to be a property tax increase adopted to balance it.
Next year’s plan spends about $137 million and relies heavily on drawing down $25 million from the city’s general fund balance, which is essentially a savings account. The budget focuses on paying off debt, refinancing bond obligations and largely funding public safety.
“My initial concern with the budget is the degree to which we are drawing down on the general fund balance, and I am concerned we have not tightened our expenditures in line with the current economic uncertainties,” vice chairman Ben Allatt said. “It does not appear there are any proposed tax increases at this time, which is positive for the residents of the community.”
There would be just over $10 million remaining in the general fund in 2021 if the council approves the plan as presented. Projections for the next four years show that the fund would dip down even further in 2022 and then start to rebuild financially from the COVID-19 recovery.
It’s estimated that the fund will increase back to 14 percent in 2023 and then 18 percent in 2024, Mayor Eric Papenfuse said.
There is $5 million less revenue coming into the city’s coffers this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Papenfuse explained during his presentation to the city council on Nov. 24. Some of the money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, helped to financially relieve some of that loss, he added.
“At first glance, this budget document seems to reasonably provide for the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of Harrisburg,” councilman David Madsen said. “The only vote I would make regarding property taxes would be to lower them.”
COVID-19 and its effects haven’t been the only thing worrying city residents this year. So has violent crime, as Harrisburg has reported nearly 20 homicides through the first 11 months.
There have been moments of notable tension between members of the community and the police department throughout a summer of civil unrest. Papenfuse said he and others were listening, which is why he included more than $1 million in new personnel costs to create a new Community Services Division within the Harrisburg Police Department.
The city stands to create 23 positions, of which 21 are civilian-based.
“This would be the largest single creation of new positions and these would be unionized positions paying a sustaining entry-level ASCME wage with benefits,” Papenfuse said at last week’s budget meeting. “(It’s the) largest creation of new positions all at once that we have seen in the city of Harrisburg. I think it will be hugely transformative for the Harrisburg Police Department.”
Among the civilian roles to fill are 12 community service aides. Papenfuse said they are “the real centerpiece of the proposal.” The jobs require hired individuals to assist with quality-of-life issues and building relationships with the community in all of the police districts.
Community service aides aren’t new, Papenfuse said during his presentation.
“Lancaster has them, another third-class city; the West Shore has them,” he said. They can provide a lot of important capacity-building, which the HPD doesn’t have.”
There aren’t enough managers to keep track of records, and technical requests, like body camera footage, Papenfuse said. The hope of expanding the city’s personnel capacity is for retrieving information quicker, keeping streets safer and approaching mental-health situations smarter.
The new positions are:
police captain (technical services) – $97,734police captain (community relations) – $97,734director of community relations and engagement – $75,355crime analyst – $59,2082 co-responders – $53,825 eachtechnical services manager – $48,443RMS manager – $48,443body camera manager – $48,443substation manager – $48,443parking enforcement officer – $33,90212 community service aides – $42,164 each
“I know there’s a frustration sometimes on the part of council that it’s hard to get the records or its hard to get the data,” Papenfuse said. “Well, an RMS manager that would be a records management systems manager, (and) a body camera manager would be somebody who would be able to manage that data and provide it in a timely manner.”
The intent of taking the public safety funding step is to ensure the city is strategically working with the public. An allocation of $103,345 would also be awarded for the South Allison Hill Safety Project, Papenfuse said.
The proposed partnership is between the city and key community organizations including:
TriCounty Community Action – recipient of the grantLight the HillBrethren HousingWild Heart MinistriesTri-County HDCHarrisburg Housing AuthorityLatino Hispanic Community Center
According to the budget, “the South Allison Hill Safety Project will serve as a model for other neighborhood organizations by focusing on improving lighting, increasing security, addressing blight, and engaging the community.”
Initiatives under this proposal offer LED bulbs for porch lights, installing residential camera systems, developing a neighborhood watch app, and establishing partnerships with the newly proposed crime analyst paid for by the city, Papenfuse said.
One more area of concern with public safety is the building in which emergency departments operate. The McCormick Public Safety Center has an HVAC system that dates back to 1957.
Energy costs are expensive, and the air filtration system isn’t sufficient based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to fight the spread of COVID-19, Papenfuse said.
Upgrades to the building would cost upwards of $1 million.
“It was a five-year plan, but we decided to go straight to bid and pay for it directly,” Papenfuse said. “We have applied to Dauphin County Gaming for a portion of those funds.”
Harrisburg Police Commissioner Tom Carter said he would provide his comments when he presents his budget to council members.
“While it’s more money for policing, it’s not more money for traditional policing,” Papenfuse said. “It’s more money for community policing. It’s not more money for our patrols or our patrol officers. It’s more money to make Harrisburg Police Department more reflective of the community it serves.”
Budget hearings are scheduled on Dec. 8 and 9, when the proposed 2021 budget will be further discussed. The final vote is expected to take place on Dec. 10.
The proposed 2021 Harrisburg budget can be found here.
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