Photo courtesy of the City of York’s website.
When asked about what municipal pension reform should accomplish, Kim Bracey asks, “Where to begin?”
As Mayor of the City of York, the pension crisis facing Pennsylvania has been weighing on her heavily. “Ten months ago we were preparing for the 2015 budget,” she says, “and I was experiencing the most anxiety I have experienced as Mayor.” York is facing a large unfunded pension liability that complicates Mayor Bracey’s ability to budget and ensure crucial municipal services. “What do you pay first? How do we best provide the services we need to provide as a city government?”
Even with Mayor Bracey’s economic acumen, it is difficult to properly fund needed programs and services when municipal pensions demand so much attention. “Our total unfunded liability is about $65 million,” she states, “but we’re able to meet our obligations, make the [annual] payments.” However, that obligation is becoming harder for York to meet.
York’s municipal pension fund issues put them at risk of serious distress. “We’re begging of our legislators to help fix the system so we can have our pensions 100% funded and fight other battles. Many have said we could find ourselves in an Act 47 position,” Mayor Bracey says. The mayor is doing much more than begging — she has been fighting for municipal pension reform for quite a while, and has directly supported the proposed state legislation.
Mayor Bracey has stood with state Representative Seth Grove, co-author of House Bill 316, since its inception. “HB 316 was birthed right here [in York County]. Rep Grove was right here when he came up with this plan. It does not require new revenue from taxpayers,” she says. “We think it to be a good plan. It creates a standalone pension law that only applies to new police and firefighter hires.”
Some people misinterpret HB 316, and its counterpart Senate Bill 755, as an attempt to alter or dispose of the pensions of current police officers, firefighters, and retirees. This is not the case. In fact, Mayor Bracey has worked closely with York’s police and fire services on this issue. “We have a great relationship with our fire and police,” she states, “and they understand we have a city to run and a job to do, and that we’re not trying to change their benefits. There’s no discord there.”
Mayor Bracey has also worked with Auditor General Eugene DePasquale on his efforts to build support for municipal pension reform. “[Auditor General DePasquale] met with anyone who would be touched by municipal pension reforms, including mayors and union officials. His [Task Force] recommendations are right on, and I appreciate him listening and giving potential solutions for municipalities,” she says. “We want to take a good look at his recommendations to make them more realistic from our end, but still need the State Legislature to act.”
Recent efforts have helped build more bipartisan support for municipal pension reform. Democratic support has only recently started to pick up in the state legislature, but Mayor Bracey sees a bipartisan effort as a no-brainer. “This is not at all a partisan issue. Potholes are not Democrat or Republican.” If municipalities are able to fully meet their pension obligations without leaning on taxpayers, then they can better afford to fund other important services, such as pothole repair, park maintenance, and garbage pickup.
As a lifelong resident of York, Mayor Bracey sees the impact of these funding issues in fine detail. “Driving around this morning, I saw weeds popping up all around, and curbs that need painting and repair, but I can’t hire any more people,” she says. “We often cut the public works and parks and rec folks first. But the city has to maintain things and work what few people we have to the bone for the improvements the taxpayers demand. We can’t get ahead.”
If Pennsylvania can enact municipal pension reform, then York can work its way back to healthy pension funding levels. That said, it would take some time to see the improvements. “We probably wouldn’t see the improvements until 10 years from now,” states Mayor Bracey. “But we’d be able to take a more sustainable approach to our budgeting process.”
The Mayor knows this is a problem that affects all Pennsylvanians. “It’s not any one city,” she asserts. “The map of distressed municipalities across the state looks like the measles.” Mayor Bracey believes these reforms need to be passed now — and that the public needs to be heard. “It’s a problem that people know about, but not fully until you talk to them about it. It’s an education for taxpayers to know where their money’s being spent, and that knowledge will help them tell their legislators what changes need to happen.”
If you stand with Mayor Kim Bracey and want to fix the numbers, then make sure your voice is heard. Write your state legislators to tell them you support municipal pension reform.