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United Way of Lancaster County


Mayor Sorace details budget, infrastructure challenges at Hourglass forum (video)

City Hall, 120 N. Duke St., Lancaster. Inset: Mayor Danene Sorace. (Source: OUL photos)

“Today I’m going to attempt to bring you into the fray,” Mayor Danene Sorace told her audience at the Hourglass First Friday Forum for May.

She then did so, taking her audience through a brisk tour of city issues: Home rule, city finances, infrastructure and homelessness services, among other things.

In kicking off with home rule, the mayor built on last month’s presentation by Home Rule Study Commission representatives Brian Adams and Amy Ruffo, the chair and vice chair, respectively. The commission intends to draft a charter by the end of July, in time to put it to Lancaster voters in a referendum in the November election.

While all decisions made so far are provisional until the commission’s final vote, “it seems like we will retain the general structure” of city government, Sorace said, including a “strong mayor” and a seven-member City Council.

Importantly, a home rule charter could allow City Council to enact a higher earned income tax, or EIT. Because incomes tend to rise over time, taxes on income can earn more revenue without the need to raise rates. Shifting some of its tax burden to the EIT, rather than continuing to raise property taxes, would be a more equitable way to meet the city’s increasing revenue needs, Sorace said: That’s the case she made for home rule when she introduced the idea in her 2023 State of the City address.

Since the pandemic, the city has been using federal American Rescue Plan Act funding as “revenue replacement” to mitigate the need for tax increases; but that resource will be gone after this year. That will leave a roughly $6 million hole to plug, the mayor said.

She said her administration is preparing dual 2025 budgets: One if home rule passes, one if it doesn’t. Both will include a mix of revenue increases and targeted expense cuts. Cuts alone are a non-starter: To save $6 million, the city would have to cut 63 positions — equivalent to nearly the entire fire department. That’s just not realistic, she said.

This image from the City of Lancaster 2024 budget presentation shows its categories of revenue (top bar) and expenses (bottom bar). Click to enlarge. (Source: City of Lancaster)

Home rule “is the best of a bad set of options,” the mayor said, and what’s at stake is the ability to fund core city services, including police, fire and infrastructure.

“It all has to work for everything else to succeed,” Sorace said.

With regard to infrastructure, Sorace noted the federal government has issued two costly mandates affecting municipal water systems: One requiring the elimination of lead service lines, the other cracking down on “forever chemicals” in drinking water. While there are federal grant money to help, “it’s not enough,” Sorace said. “… This is a crisis.”

On the plus side, the city Bureau of Police received 455 applications in its current recruitment round, a huge number. Of those, 133 passed a written test and an agility test, making it likely the bureau will be able to hire 10 to 15 officers this year, allowing it to maintain staffing levels amid a comparable number of retirements.

Meanwhile, the bureau is undertaking a staffing study: Historically, the city has budgeted for 145 police positions and staffed up to about 135 of them; but it makes sense to revisit those numbers and see if they check out, the mayor said.

On homelessness, the city continues to work with the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition and nonprofit partners. It’s a countywide issue, Sorace said.

Through the Lancaster County Community Foundation, $200,000 was raised to support outreach and rehousing efforts over the summer until the planned opening of a shelter at Otterbein United Methodist Church. The city is providing ARPA toward its setup and the homelessness services hub planned on South Prince Street; but there are real questions about ongoing operating costs once those facilities are launched, she said.

The mayor wrapped up with a glance at the city’s new comprehensive plan and the related plans for a nature reserve at Sunnyside Peninsula and a study of the County Prison site in light of its expected redevelopment; and gave a nod to several other grant-supported initiatives, including Vision Zero, Healthy Lives Healthy Lancaster and the Tourism Master Plan.

“I am really proud to be able to serve as mayor,” Sorace said. There are 600 city employees, she said, and “we’re all working really hard to deliver.”