Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

2020 Harrisburg budget passes with no tax increase, more money for police, capital projects

Harrisburg City Council on Tuesday night

Harrisburg has passed a 2020 budget that spends more money on police salaries and debt reduction but does not raise taxes.

City Council on Tuesday night approved Mayor Eric Papenfuse’s proposed spending plan with no changes.

“I think this is a sign that the government is working well together,” Papenfuse said, following the meeting. “We worked very hard to be collaborative in the process.”

Councilman Ben Allatt, chair of the council’s budget and finance committee, concurred that this year’s budget process was a smooth one.

“We had a lively discussion [during the budget hearings],” he said. “I think there’s general agreement about the budget priorities going forward.”

Council voted 6-1 to approve the budget, with a lone “no” vote by council member Shamaine Daniels.

The proposed 2020 budget, which contains no city property tax increase for a seventh straight year, totals $120 million, which includes a $74.3 million general fund, a $17.5 million neighborhood services fund and a $15.3 million debt service fund.

In contrast, the city’s 2019 budget totals nearly $110 million, which includes a $70.8 million general fund, a $20.6 million neighborhood services fund and a $9.8 million debt service fund.

Papenfuse expects the city to run a 2019 surplus of about $1 million. He has attributed the surplus mostly to earned income taxes and business taxes that exceeded expectations, which indicates a healthy jobs climate in the city.

The city will use much of that surplus to increase salaries for police officers, with the hope that a pay boost will help the Police Bureau, which has long struggled with retention, keep its young officers.

In fact, on Tuesday, City Council also approved a new, six-year collective bargaining agreement with the police union to affirm the new pay schedule.

Under the agreement, the entry-level salary for a police officer will remain the same at almost $49,000 a year. However, an officer would be able to move up in pay quickly, so that officers, in year six, would be able to earn as much as $70,000—some $6,000 more than previously.

In all, the city hopes to add 10 to 15 officers to the force, bringing the personnel count to a budgeted 153 officers.

The police union contract didn’t expire for another year. However, the city opened it up early to create the new salary regimen.

“That will hopefully provide an improved retention for our police force,” Allatt said. “The long-term benefit will be good for the city.”

The budget also adds four firefighter positions, mostly paid for by reductions in overtime for existing staff. That would bring the Fire Bureau complement in 2020 to 86 total personnel, plus command staff.

Council also approved a resolution on Tuesday that will amend the city’s agreement with its bond insurer, Ambac Assurance Corp.

Under the agreement, the city will prepay $5 million in debt using its substantial reserve funds. With Harrisburg pre-paying, Ambac has agreed to a “multiplier” that would actually reduce city debt by $6.9 million, Papenfuse has said. He also said he would like to refinance existing general obligation debt that extends through 2022 at a lower interest rate.

The budget contained several other notable provisions.

First, the city and the school district have reached an agreement to split the cost of two school resource officers. The district’s SRO program expired in 2009 when funding dried up and was never renewed.

Papenfuse also is proposing renovating the first floor of the MLK city government center. Money for that work would come from federal Community Development Block Grant funds.

For 2020, the city is focusing on five capital improvement projects. These include:

  • Beginning the conversion of much of N. 2nd Street to two-way traffic.
  • A roundabout, improved crosswalks and a partially protected cycle track on N. 7th Street.
  • Road and curb improvements to the MulDer Square area.
  • Safety improvements to State Street on Allison Hill, pending cooperation and approval from PennDOT.
  • “East-West connector” project, which consists of improvements to the area around Walnut and Chestnut streets downtown, funded with a state grant.

These debt reduction and capital improvement measures will tap into the city’s substantial budget reserve balance, which now sits at about $24 million, saved up over the last several years. At the end of 2020, the city expects to draw down the reserve to about $15.6 million, Allatt said.

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