Amid urgent warnings from City Manager Rob Hernandez about the "unsustainable" state of City finances, Savannah City Council today approved considering the possibility of new Fire Service Fee to be assessed across the board.
However, today's vote does not actually implement the fee at this time, it simply guarantees that it will remain on the table as an option.
Alderman Van Johnson and Alderwoman Estella Shabazz were the opposing votes.
Mayor Eddie DeLoach warned that either a Fire Service Fee or a tax increase would be necessary to balance the 2018 City budget, which is due to be finalized by the end of the year.
Today's proposal includes a small two-mill rollback of the City property tax millage rate, though that is unlikely to cover the per capita cost of the new Fire Service Fee.
Hernandez said the Fire Service Fee would involve "treating the service provided by Savannah Fire and Emergency Service as more of a utility."
Dozens of City employees are due to be laid off by December 31 as the budget explodes due to unforeseen costs of the decoupling of the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department merger and other challenges.
Alderman Johnson cited the City layoffs as one reason to hold off on the proposed new Fire Service Fee.
"It's regressive for a City with 23-26 percent poverty," Johnson said, asking that the City Manager put more options on the table before "we make a monumental decision based on numbers I'm not convinced are real."
In other City Council business, a four-year-plus preservation and redevelopment project at Trustees Garden was thrown for a loop by last-minute opposition from a small church on East Broughton Street.
Owner Charles H. Morris, who also owns Connect Savannah, agreed to change the new event facility's alcohol license request to only beer and wine instead of also including liquor, to keep the application in line with City and state law about distance from churches.
However, the pastor of the New Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church still opposes the license.
Morris, speaking to Council, reminded them that the project isn't reliant on taxpayer money and that alcohol revenue is key to making the project sustainable.
"We've been at this project for four years and four months now... my vision for this project was always, as opposed to the City [being responsible] for it, for me to find a way to make this financially sustainable," Morris said.
Council voted to continue the license hearing two weeks to give time for Morris and church elders to meet to discuss the issue.