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COMMENTARY: Fire Fee Just the Latest Disaster of the DeLoach Administration

By Lou Phelps, Publisher

June 7, 2018 – At a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Eddie DeLoach announced that he has asked City Manager Rob Hernandez to look for another way to fund a portion of the city’s operating expense needs for 2018. proposing that the rate of the Fire Safety Fee approved by six members of the City Council back in December, be cut in half.  He will have to get that approved by the Council, of course.

It is just the latest nail in the political coffin of the Mayor, a ‘nice guy,’ but someone who has proven he does not have the political skillset, knowledge, temperament, patience, respect for transparency and representative government, or a true understanding of the City Charter and the basic democratic process to sustain a political career.   Look for candidates for Mayor in 2019 to start lining up.

DeLoach said Wednesday that the City will have to “do belt tightening,” to cover the revenues that were anticipated in 2018 from the fee, adding, “I got elected by a group of people who think that belt-tightening is a good idea, so we’ll have to do that.”  

The Fire Fee was one of many solutions developed by City Manager Rob Hernandez, when directed to come up with more city revenue for the 2018 budget.  The Council, controlled by a five to six vote majority that DeLoach seems to orchestrate, did not give serious consideration to cutting the budget, and also misstated projected revenues in their ‘public’ deliberations, a process that only added fuel to the undercurrent of anger about Mayor DeLoach’s day-to-day approach to leadership.

To date, the public does not have a clear understanding of how much revenue was even anticipated to be received in this fiscal year from the fee, payable as of Sept. 1, so how much ‘belt tightening’ will be necessary is not clear. 

Since he was elected, Aldermen have complain routinely that Mayor DeLoach fails to seek their opinion on many issues, with some members believing that they are flat left out of most of what he does.  And, few insiders would argue that Hernandez has grasped to fully exercise the power granted to him through the City Charter’s ‘Strong-City-Manager’ form of government.  

DeLoach forced Hernandez to include $2 million for an early childhood education initiative in the CM’s budget recommendations, an idea that had not even been vetted by the Savannah-Chatham Board of Education before DeLoach tried to add it to the 2018 budget. That blew up in both the Mayor and Hernandez' faces.

The school board members, including President Jolene Byrne, learned about the Mayor’s early education initiative through media reports on the City's budget meetings – an idea by DeLoach that would cost SCCPSS millions, as well, in matching funds.  The proposal came as a complete surprise to most of the members of the Council as well, dropped on them on the last day of the budget workshop.

When the rumor began to run that DeLoach wanted to house the early-ed program in the building on Savannah’s Eastside that his friend and ‘kitchen cabinet’ member Reed DeLaney had put millions into for renovations for a charter school – a school that was failing and at risk of being shut down by the Board of Education … the $2 million line-item was sunk.  The Board of Ed later gave the school one more year to operate when DeLaney waived their $400.000 a year rent.

Throughout that the four-week budget process, there was a lack of transparency, including understating projected 2017 revenues.  Projections about 2018 revenues were also understated, in the opinion of the SBJ, based on state and local revenue trends.

The Council approved their 2018 budget in late Dec. 2017. Somehow, with only a few weeks left in the fiscal year, the City’s Revenue Director David Maxwell failed to inform them- at least publicly - that there was a possible $10 million overage coming out of 2017 that would be flowing in the City’s coffers ... making the projected $14 million from the fire fee not necessary.  

Some Aldermen who voted for the Fire Fee back in December have stated they were not aware of either financial misstatements.  Others have dodged the facts, with the deflecting statement, “The City needs revenue for many things,” a statement that smacks of an aiir of ... ‘We know better than you do what should be done.’

But the voters and taxpayers of the City had a right to the facts, and those were not given. Information on the $10 million overage from 2017 was not released until this April.  However, the public was not fooled, and DeLoach’s political fortunes have continued to fall.

Meanwhile, the Fire Fee moved forward with insufficient time for a smooth imposition:  some property owners and businesses still haven’t received their bill, we have been told.  The window for property owners to file for a discount – if they have fire safety features at their property such as a smoke alarm or fire extinguisher – was too short for many to respond.  Local stores ran out of fire extinguishers to even sell.  The Fire Dept. was inundated with calls for free fire alarm installations.

Adding to issues, the plan to review all of the discount certificates that have been flooding in are insufficient, with property visits to supposedly be conducted by the First Dept. personnel. They, of course, are supposed to be at their fire stations, prepared to respond to a fire or an auto accident. 

Many business leaders have questioned the cost of the Fire Dept. for multiple years … also not researched sufficiently before this fee was adopted.  Add that nail. 

And then, more nails on the coffin.  The Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Leadership Council both sent out surveys to their members within the last week, asking for opinions on the Fire Fee.  No surprise, the results were overwhelmingly against the fee, and DeLoach has now buckled to the pressure of those who funded his campaign.  While their honest opinions to him may have been a tipping point, the public at large has overwhelmingly rejected this fee from day one.  

The problem with Mayor DeLoach is like that of many politicians:  he failed to listen; he failed to understand those he was elected to represent; and he sought to impose his will on the voters - the majority of whom do not live in a million-dollar home in Ardsley Park.

The issues and problems in his Administration are far more extensive than just the Fire Fee.


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