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Nov. 29 – COMMENTARY: Don’t Even TRY to Blow Smoke up our Skirts and Pants Legs

Category: Editorial & Opinion

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

November 29, 2017 – By all accounts of those at the District 4 Town Hall Monday night, city officials – including Mayor Eddie DeLoach, Alderman Julian Miller, Bret Bell (what’s his title now under the new reorg?), and Aldermen-at-Large Carol Bell and Brian Foster – were tense.  The audience was not buying what they were selling, and members of the audience were verbally attacked both during and after the meeting by some of them.

After District 4 Alderman Miller ran through what has been accomplished in improvements in District 4 in his first two years in office – including heavy-hitting city investments such as playground equipment and a traffic-calming circle – Bret Bell got up and touted the coming $300 million in new hotels along West River Street - with a parking garage for the tourists that the city borrowed for - and the intended $550 million coming to Savannah River Landing.  The contrast of continued investment into the tourism-driven ‘downtown’ versus into the quality of life in the neighborhoods of the voters, was like a bucket of ice-water being thrown on those in attendance. And, somehow, inexplicably, our city’s top officials don’t seem to get it. 

The public isn’t stupid, and efforts to try to blow smoke up everyone’s pants legs and skirts isn’t working anymore.  So, stop wasting our time with lack of information, and deferred and delayed transparency.

The Parking Garage enterprise fund is supposed to be self-sustaining, so why is this an issue for the General Fund in Hernandez's projected 'shortfall' in 2018, as one simple example of confusing information and facts. 

Political leaders always know more than the rest of us, including the media.  They have the inside information; they know about the ‘deals on the table’ that may come down, and about some new project being proposed by a developer that will need a zoning variance, etc.  But, we eventually find out, which then leads to mistrust.  

As a reporter, I’ve often said to an official I was interviewing, “Please don’t bother to lie to me.  You may fool me today, short-term. But, I’m going to eventually find out that you lied, or used ‘the lie of omission.’  And, when I find out, it isn’t going to be pretty.”

The same is true of the public.  The rapid-sharing capability of social media and digital news means that the public is FAR more informed in this day-and-age than in the past.  And, more rapidly informed.   

As we start two days of budget hearings tomorrow, please don’t waste our time with obfuscation.  

The executive summary to the Preliminary Budget released by City Manager Rob Hernandez last week combines figures and information which cross between the General Fund and the Enterprise Funds, for example. 

In the first 147 pages released, there was STILL no clear information on how much more the de-merged Savannah Police Dept. is going to cost city taxpayers.  What will it cost in 2018 with the staffing levels on city beats the department HAS had, and what will it cost if more officers are added on city beats to improve response times - as suggested by the independent consulting firm?  And, what are the one-time costs for the startup:   new equipment, cars, 911, etc. that must be funded in 2018 because some of that equipment was actually owned by Chatham County?  This isn’t rocket science.  Put the numbers down for all to understand, including the City Council.

How many ‘approved positions’ of the Savannah Fire Dept. have not been filled in 2015, 2016 and 2017 – due to the difficulty in finding firefighters - yet the department has been functioning well without them?  Since, even with those dark positions, we have the highest possible fire rating that money can buy, it’s a fair question.  We are spending $32 million a year to fight 12 structural fires, an average of one a month. We assume that we have mutual aid agreements in place with Bluffton, Effingham and Bryan, should a major fire start, so this needs to be aired.  And, why aren't we charging area municipalities for all the mutual aid that WE'RE supplying?

What is in Hernandez’s proposed 2018 budget that COULD be funded by SPLOST dollars, and are there unspent SPLOST dollars that can be re-allocated for these ‘similar projects’ because completed projects have come in under budget? The detailed budget books later this week should provide that information.

His budget, at least as presented so far, fails to give the Council options – an ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’ approach -  which was very disappointing. And, as mentioned, he combines jobs of the enterprise departments, such as the water department, with positions funded by the General Fund.

We, the public, are well-aware that capital needs were put-off by prior administrations, and must be addressed.  But, what are the time-lined options? What MUST be addressed in 2018?  What COULD be deferred to 2019 and beyond?  

And HOW MUCH money has been lost from the Water/Sewer/Trash fund that would have funded the bonding for the capital improvements necessary for our sewer system due to State and Federal mandates to stop dumping insufficiently treated water into the Savannah River?   What is today's 'Accounts Receivable' of unpaid bills versus November 2016?  And how much are they 'writing off' under GAAP accounting rules - uncollected money that is just plain gone due to incompetency? 

Is anyone listening to the fact that we want sidewalks, repaired streets, street lighting, sewers, walking trails, parks, video cameras and the like – quality of life improvements to enhance our living spaces?

And, then there’s the backroom talk that Al Scott is working on a deal whereby all the property tax money that Memorial Health, Inc., to be owned by private hospital corporation HCA – as much as $10 million a year - will go into an indigent care fund versus into the tax coffers of the city, schools and county. No wonder Hernandez is not answering questions about how he’s projecting 2018 revenues.  When the HCA deal was announced, we were led to believe that HCA would be 'putting money' into an indigent fund, to be overseen by the Chatham County Hospital Authority. 

The proposed Fire Safety Fee, poorly introduced by Hernandez and the hired consultant team, has hit like a political bomb.  If Mayor Eddie DeLoach, Miller and Foster thought they were going to ram it through, and then run for re-election that they cut the property tax millage rate by 2 mils … they are underestimating the sensitivity and knowledge of the city's voters.

Those voters sent Mayor Edna Jackson a clear message, including a sizable portion of registered black voters: ‘You’re a lovely person, but you’ve hired and then stood behind two City Managers who couldn’t get the job done, and you haven’t been transparent about your problems.”  Eddie Deloach, Julian Miller and Brian Foster capitalized on those voters grasping for change, much like the election of President Donald Trump.

Unless District 3 Alderman John Hall comes to his senses and reads the tea leaves, Mayor DeLoach appears to have the five votes to put the Fire Fee in effect. But they will all pay a political price with that vote.

And, like President Trump, with the lowest popularity rating after one year of any sitting U.S. President, the voters have already been quick to assess their performance, and people are lining up to run against them.

Don’t waste our time at the City Budget hearings this Thursday and Friday, trying to blow smoke up our pants legs and skirts. 

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