Lancaster city mayor Danene Sorace, left, speaks to volunteers before Canvassing around the city to spread awareness of the spiking COVID-19 cases in the county, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. More than 45 people volunteered to canvass around the city.

Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace couldn’t ignore the COVID-19 pandemic in her State of the City address Tuesday night. After all, how could you dismiss the 400-pound gorilla in what was a mostly empty room, as the mayor delivered the address virtually with no live audience.

Unlike last year’s address, held in front of a live audience in the Ware Center’s 350-seat Steinman Hall, this year’s speech was livestreamed on the city’s website and YouTube page from the Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse, with about a dozen city staffers and tech crew making up the in-person audience.

But even a global pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans, including 800 residents of Lancaster County, could not keep Sorace from presenting a modestly upbeat assessment as she reviewed 2020 and looked ahead to 2021.

“It is impossible to think about 2020 without talking about COVID, which defined so much of last year,” Sorace said.

Rather than dwell on the somber death count, though, Sorace pointed out the city’s efforts and accomplishments in responding to the pandemic.

The mayor highlighted things like the city’s contact-tracing program (which has since been taken over by the county), the establishment of an emergency small business assistance fund, ramped up multilingual communications efforts to make sure residents were well informed about the disease, grants for mask and hand sanitizer distribution, the establishment of outdoor dining and retail programs for city businesses, and the opening of an emergency homeless shelter.

“On March 27 a stay-at-home order was issued for Lancaster County, and our team was already in action,” said Sorace. “We threw ourselves into working alongside incredible partners to respond to economic recovery, the need for social services, and ongoing health and safety concerns.”

Social justice protests

Sorace took a similar approach in addressing 2020’s other big issue, the social justice protests triggered by the May shooting of George Floyd. While the city was hit by protests, and fallout from those protests seemed to play a role in the departure of former city police Chief Jarrad Berkihiser, the mayor again chose to accentuate the positive.

“Our work to strengthen our police bureau began before the death of George Floyd,” Sorace said, citing a revised use-of-force policy, the rollout of police officer body cameras, the hiring of the first police department social worker, and the launch of the Community and Police Working Group. “We made meaningful changes in line with 21st-century policing.”

Financial picture

The one part of her address that was not optimistic in nature came when Sorace discussed the city’s ongoing financial problems, including the structural deficit in its budget that is rapidly depleting the city’s reserves as the mayor and City Council have tried to avoid raising what are already the highest property taxes in the county.

Showing a chart that illustrated the projected year-by-year growth of the deficit, Sorace said, “Our projected fund balance? Not so good. The city was only ever one crisis away from this scenario, and COVID is it.”

Sorace said she was cautiously optimistic some COVID-related financial assistance might come from Washington, but that such assistance would only be temporary. Absent more permanent solutions to its funding crisis, the city will be facing some tough decisions in the not-so-distant future, she said.

“The combination of a structural deficit and COVID means we will have big decisions to make. Do we raise property taxes again? Do we cut services? Do we do both? And by how much,” Sorace posed. “The structural deficit remains and the solution requires action in Harrisburg.”

Calling attention to the city’s engagement efforts and the involvement of its many community partner organizations, Sorace closed her speech by appealing to the city’s residents to continue to be involved and engaged.

“We often talk about Lancaster as a laboratory city, small enough to make real change and big enough to matter,” the mayor said. “We can be a big part of demonstrating the way forward as a community and as a county.”

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