York Mayor Kim Bracey on optimism, underdogs and ‘paying dividends for generations’

     York Mayor Kim Bracey speaks during budget hearings in December. The city renegotiated its police contract to avoid layoffs that threatened to cut the department in half.  (Emily Previti/WITF)

    York Mayor Kim Bracey speaks during budget hearings in December. The city renegotiated its police contract to avoid layoffs that threatened to cut the department in half. (Emily Previti/WITF)

     “Five Questions with …” is a regular Keystone Crossroads feature where we seek to glean wisdom and ideas from some of Pennsylvania’s top urban thinkers and doers.

    “Five Questions with …” is a regular Keystone Crossroads feature where we seek to glean wisdom and ideas from some of Pennsylvania’s top urban thinkers and doers.

     Q: Tell us about an amenity or service that you’ve seen in your travels to other places that you wish you could bring back to York?

    A: One of the great small cities in our nation is Greenville, South Carolina.  Like York, Greenville has a waterway that runs through it and its downtown.  Unlike York, Greenville and its county have dedicated revenue to make its waterway and waterfront beautiful and enticing.  The Reedy River features a waterfall, rippling waters, green space that embraces the river, and the stunning Liberty Bridge.  Buildings are oriented toward the river, not away from it.  It’s a major social, environmental, and economic asset. 

    In York, we’ve recently made strides with cleaning our Codorus [Creek] and reimagining its Boat Basin. But our city’s general fund cannot give our Codorus the care, attention, and upkeep that it deserves.

    We need a revenue stream exclusively for transformational and sustainable change. Greenville imposes a two percent local hospitality tax on prepared meals and beverages.  Proceeds go to facilities and product development.  

    Similarly, an alcohol tax in York could help make our Codorus and Heritage Rail Trail an impressive, well-illuminated asset that pays dividends for generations.    

    Q: What’s one urban improvement idea that you could categorize as “nice try but didn’t work”?

    A: Moses took a trip with his people to the “promised land” and I guess it “didn’t work” until the Red Sea parted.  Adopted after the Civil War here in the United States, the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection for all citizens “didn’t work” until well into the twentieth century, and we still are amending our understandings of how to integrate and empower all of our people.  I am a glass half full leader, so I prefer to look at ideas as ideas-in-progress, not as ideas that “didn’t work.”  

    One of my goals is to recapitalize novel incentive programs like our Artist Homestead Program and our Fresh Foods Revolving Loan Fund.  

    We haven’t had adequate staff, funding, and partners to do that, but I never give up on good ideas and programs as innovate and successful as those were.

    We are looking for partners and funding to re-launch those programs, which pay major dividends in terms of social capital and economic development.   

    On a larger level, the greatest failure in civic leadership is to not have a bold vision.  Too often, civic leaders announce tepid or incremental goals and miss out on great opportunities because they are defensive about being called out for not succeeding on all fronts. 

    If a mayor has 15 bold goals and ends up achieving 10 of them, that’s a great success rate.  Even if you achieve five out of 15, that’s a .333 average and good enough to get you into the baseball hall of fame.

    But if a mayor has three mundane, or procedural goals and achieves all three, I’m not impressed. His or her constituencies shouldn’t be, either. 

    We should not resign ourselves to mediocrity or wring our hands while managing decline.  Our people and our communities deserve so much more. 

    Q: Describe a person in York who is a “spark” — someone  who seems to get things done and inspire people.

    A: Boy, we have so many.  Our citizens and our young people continue to surprise and inspire me every week.    

    Q: What is a flaw or habit of York that you would like to see change?

    A: A false premise, or what I call the “just do this” fallacy. Another phrase we could use is “panacea fantasy” or magical thinking.  

    One particularly annoying and discredited refrain is: “York should just operate like a business and live within its means.”  

    Imagine if a business could only operate at 63 percent of its capacity each year.

    Imagine a business that had to pay for 37 percent of its workforce even though that part of the workforce produced no company revenues. 

    Imagine a manufacturing plant having to operate and service 37 percent of its machinery each year even though that 37 percent  produced no company revenues.  

    Essentially, that’s what the concentration of land owned by tax-exempt entities means to York’s bottom financial line. It accounts for 40 percent of properties and 37 percent of collective real estate value.

    It’s assessed at $578 million, which equates to $11 million in lost city tax revenue per year. That’s would be the equivalent of 110 police officers or essentially York’s entire police force.     

    These agencies also serve large populations who do not live in York. Every non-city resident who attends college, receives health care, uses state and county government services, attends religious services, receives social services, enjoys entertainment at Santander Stadium, the Strand-Capitol, or other venues, or receives charitable assistance in our York has that service subsidized by city taxpayers.

    Q: Tell us about a movie or book that depicts, in a way that grabbed your attention, how a city can thrive or fail.

    A: I am the mayor of the small city that could – a scrappy underdog that, through determination and innovation, simply will not quit and will not be denied.  So Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” which tells stories of how underdogs beat the odds, is particularly inspiring. 

    Editor’s note: Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

    Is there someone you know who thinks hard about cities and knows how to get things done? Someone whom Keystone Crossroads should spend “Five Questions with …”. Please let us know in the comment sections below or via Facebook or Twitter @Pacrossroads.

     

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