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Dec. 5 – COMMENTARY: WE will PAY the Fire Fee for Houses of Worship, Schools, Govt. Buildings; Other Fire Fee Updates

Category: Editorial & Opinion

By Lou Phelps, Publisher, Savannah Business Journal

December 5, 2017 – Mayor Eddie DeLoach continues to push forward on his proposed Fire Safety Fee that will impact every piece of property within the city limits, including every church, school, college, government building and lot left in a will to one of the above.

To date, the discussions at the Savannah City Council’s Budget Workshop keep referencing what the ‘average homeowner’ should expect to pay. But, too little information has been provided about what the  city’s houses of worship – large and small – will pay, not to mention what the average small business will be hit with for a new cost of doing business in Savannah.  

City Manager Rob Hernandez has explained that the fee would make the 10% of the property within the city limits that are ‘exempt’ from property taxes - due to their non-profit status - pay for fire services.  His plan would move the Savannah Fire Dept. out of the General Fund, into its own self-sustaining fund.

But, the five or so City Council members who seem to be going along with the fee need to remember that WE, the citizens and business owners of the city, are the ones who pay those bills at all the houses of worship and non-profits. We are the ones paying the costs of the schools.  And, we are the ones paying County taxes to fund the fire fee for every Chatham County government building within the city limits. 

The discussions to date have been very, very unclear about what a church would pay.  Whatever it costs for the Greek Orthodox church complex on Bull Street, for example, or the littlest Baptist Church on the Westside, will come from the generous contributions of its members. 

Likewise, the Board of Education has very little information. They’ve heard a figure thrown around that the City has calculated SCCPSS’s bill would be roughly $700,000 a year for schools, administration buildings and land owned within the city limits.  WE the citizens pay those bills, too.  There’s been a last minute addition to Wednesday’s Board of Education Agenda for a presentation by the city on the fee, we’ve learned.

Most importantly, the 2018 Projected Revenues that Hernandez and the city’s financial staff presented last week includes an increase of $11.1 million in 2018. That figure is without counting millions in new property taxes from Memorial Hospital, or $300 million in new hotels, all coming onto the property tax rolls in 2018 and 2019, and generating even more in sales taxes.   

On a total General Fund of $187 million, that’s a 6% increase in revenues. And, many believe the $11.1 figure is very, very conservative based on all available economic and tourism predictions.

Add to the disinformation, Mayor DeLoach added a last-minute request to add $2.2 million to the 2018 Operating Budget for a new program he would like to call ‘Project Renaissance.’  That is  ill-timed.  There has been no public discussion, staff work, subcommittee work or any type of vote by the SCCPSS Board of Education to endorse such a program.

While the Mayor may have had some informal one-on-one discussions with individual SCCPSS Board of Education members over the past year about how to address poverty, his statement last Friday that SCCPSS had agreed to kick in $5 million a year towards a major new effort to prepare 3-year-old’s for school, is just not true.  A huge amount of work would have to be done to to launch such an effort, and like other similar programs, would need a commitment by the Chatham County Commissioners, as well.  

Further, concrete results are already being realized by an innovative program that’s now in existence  called the Savannah Early Childhood Foundation. The program, co-sponsored as part of SCCPSS’s Parent University and all local Savannah Rotary clubs, is focused on working with the parents of very young children - getting to the heart of the issues of whether a young child is ready to enter school on an equal footing – by teaching young parents how to care for a newborn child, and how all of their efforts get the child ready for school, and the future.

That program teaches young parents how to look for early signs of learning disability issues; about reading to your child daily; about providing adequate healthcare and nutrition; and other soft skills – all aimed at caring for a young child, and getting them ready for school.  This effort, in addition to the outstanding work being done at The Lady Bamford Center and the Parent University programming, in general, needs more support … not a new signature program that Mayor DeLoach wants to put his name on.

Throwing the $2.2 million request into the 2018 pot is just adding to what may be an artificial shortfall.   

Other new ideas were also put on the table, such as Brian Foster’s idea to consider outsourcing the running of the Civic Center to the same group running the Trade Center.  He believes it can both save money and stabilize the property that is old, but must be used for at least the next six to seven years.  

The information released to date on the Fire Safety Fee can be found on the city’s website at .   It states that a ‘risk factor’ will be determined for every piece of property – 5,800 parcels – and explains:  “It is a measure of Savannah Fire Rescue’s comparative ratio of cost for the initial response to a particular property. All property has been assigned to a risk category by Savannah Fire Rescue based on property, building, occupancy and use characteristics that would affect the probability of a fire occurring and the potential consequences if a fire did occur.”  Did you know that?  And, who determined whether one business building is more of a risk factor than another? There is information on how to earn a potential discount, as well, but how that bill be administered – new personnel – was not discussed.

Lastly, Hernandez has stated that the first bill for the Fire Fee will not go out until Sept. 2018.  With expectations that the bill is due in 30 days or so … there much not be much need for the funds IN 2018.  And, he acknowledged that many businesses, schools and colleges, were not expecting the bill, already have set budgets, and wouldn’t have to pay the bill until 2019. 

Yet, Alderman-at-Large Brian Foster made clear that 2019 is going to be a banner revenue year.

In short, more in depth information is needed about expenses from the General Fund, and not the combination of budget issues relative to Enterprise Funds, to ascertain the true need for revenue over next year’s $11.1 million plus, plus in new projected new revenues. 

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