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Nov. 18 – Across Savannah, both Businesses and Residents Question Instituting a Fire Service Fee

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

Nov. 18 – Theresa Viselli is angry.  She sent some questions about the possible new Fire Safety Fee, proposed by City Manager Rob Hernandez, to him and got back what she views was a somewhat insulting answer.  A resident of the Edgemere-Sackville area, she represents those Savannah residents who take great pride in their home, have stuck with their changing neighborhoods, and have been active in their neighborhood association for years.  And, she's on a fixed income.

Viselli says there is no room in her annual budget for a Fire Safety Fee to be added on top of the property taxes she already pays on her home, and onto the small rental property in the same neighborhood that was left to her by her parents, and is a primary source of her income. 

More importantly, she can’t understand why the City of Savannah finds itself short $18 million, potentially, as Hernandez and his financial team try to craft a balanced budget for 2018.  The public – and the City Council – have received few details on what Hernandez projects as next year’s total revenue from the its 45 revenue sources, versus the expense he believes should be planned for and budgeted.. 

Mayor Eddie DeLoach supports instituting a fire fee rather than raising the City’s millage property tax record, a position he repeated in an interview Friday afternoon, even though the new Federal tax laws being discussed in Washington by the U.S. House and Senate both seem to keep property taxes as a deduction, but will eliminate state and local taxes as deductibles.  Based on information being reported nationally, a service fee on a property, such as that paid for water/sewer/trash – and possibly now a fire fee – will not be a residential household deduction. 

For businesses, a fee would be an operating expense, and would therefore reduce profit and taxable income. But, it has to be paid.  And for many businesses, charging a fire fee based on their square footage is coming as a shock. 

Viselli is not alone in her questions and concerns.  A number of areas businesses have called the SBJ to ask what the region's business news source knew about the Fire Fee and how it would be calculated for area businesses, including representatives from one of the largest manufacturers in our region.   A Fire Fee in 2018 was not budgeted in their short or long-term operating budgets, and is coming as a surprise as most corporations are set to close out and approve next year's operating budgets.

On Tuesday, the City Council will hold a Work Session at 10:00 a.m.  The Fire Fee is once again on the agenda.  Several Aldermen interviewed late this week have many questions for Hernandez, starting with specifics on his projections for revenue streams.  He has already told the City Council that his 2018 budget, to be presented to them starting the week after Thanksgiving, will include cutting some City employee jobs, and eliminating some city services such as the Entrepreneur Center.  There are also new positions he hopes to add. 

Viselli has also reached out to her District’s Alderman, John Hall.  Here’s her letter to Hall, sent late this week, which captures many of the questions being asked by residents and businesses, and her research that includes the variety of methodologies that other cities around the U.S. use to instituting fire fees.  Florida, with many senior citizens on fixed incomes who can not bear an increase in property taxes, or do not have sufficient income to be able to use a property tax deduction on their Federal Income Tax filing, uses fire fees.  Hernandez was most recently an Asst. City Manager in a South Florida metro area.

 

“Dear Alderman Hall:

I just don't see how the COS (City of Savannah) can implement this fire fee as it is currently proposed. 

In Sarsota, FL, it's charged based on tiers. Tier 1 would be $93.91. Tier 2 for improved properties would be $4.81 for every $5K in replacement value. So, a property that assesses at $150K would pay $144. California suspended the fire fee, but it was $155 per habitable residence. Wisconsin charges it on the phone bill, .38 cents for each transaction for prepaid wireless and .75 cents monthly for each voice communication with an assigned phone number (landline, cellular line and VoIP).

Did the COS even discuss other options? Adding a penny to sales tax? 

I'm low income. Everyone in Edgemere and Sackville and most of your district are as well. You mentioned that a discount for seniors would be discussed. How about people who live on low income?  Without including assets, we didn't save for our retirement so we could be punished for it.

People are angry. Even at Publix 12 Oaks last night, strangers were discussing this and they were outraged. Most people didn't even know about it. And the ones that did never thought Council would vote to pass it.

A family on my street told me they're probably going to sell their home and move. A neighbor in Sackville said he'd sell his home and move before he pays this fee. He's on a fixed income with little to no wiggle room.

Savannah is in a bind. There is an $18,000,000.00 deficit. The people of Savannah didn't create this deficit. City Management did. The Fire Fee is Savannah's City Government's way of bailing out the city and causing severe negative hardship on most homeowners.

Is there going to be a Town Hall Meeting about this?

Thank you, Sincerely,Theresa Viselli

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