A controversial proposed new Fire Services Fee moved a step closer to reality yesterday despite public opposition from property owners, realtors, nonprofits, seniors, and low-income residents who spoke against it at City Council.
Community member Ivan Cohen reflected the sense of resignation many have in Savannah about the fee's apparent inevitability when he said, "I know it's coming, this fire fee, or tax, whatever you call it... you can dress it up anyway you want."
Cohen pointed out the slippery-slope nature of the fee, asking Council what's to stop them from implementing a Police Service Fee as well.
A representative of the local realtor community spoke against the fee, saying it unfairly impacts property owners, who already pay property tax for City services.
To which Mayor DeLoach responded, "Would you rather have a tax increase instead?"
Speaking of taxes: When a citizen pointed out that at least a tax is deductible, whereas a fee is not, City Manager Rob Hernandez counseled citizens to fudge on their income tax and claim the fee as a tax deduction anyway.
"The IRS looks the other way on that," Hernandez said.
Alderman Brian Foster, one of the apparent majority of Council planning to support the Fire Fee, said "I think taxes are way too high in this community" but pointed out that "in the past 10 years the City has lowered its millage rate while the County has raised their taxes by 10 percent, and the School Board has raised their taxes by about 20 percent."
Donald Dyches of local firm Dyches Construction claimed to have a letter from Alderman Julian Miller supporting the Fire Fee, in which Miller said if the Fire Fee doesn't pass, City property taxes would have to go up 40 percent in two years.
Community activist Linda Wilder Bryan spoke for many when she suggested Council balance the budget on the back of tourists rather than low-income residents who would be hard-pressed to pay what's expected to be a per-house fee around $300 per year.
"If you want us to believe you've done everything, why aren't we using impact fees for hotels and motels that come to our City?" Bryan said.
Hernandez responded that state law limits what impact fees can be used for, but added that he will explore the idea of impact fees next year.
That wasn't the only budget brouhaha. Controversial cuts to nonprofit budgets brought fireworks, particularly from the executive director of the Rape Crisis Center, Kesha Gibson-Carter.
Lamenting the enormous backlog of unprocessed rape kits, Gibson-Carter passionately asked Council, "Is it pleasing to you that we've only had 11 or 12 arrests for rape" out of more than 100 reports?
Hernandez explained the budget cuts by saying the Rape Crisis Center hadn't followed proper protocol in submitting a proposal on time nor in attending a City funding workshop.
"If you're asking staff to go back and amend their recommendations simply because an organization can come here and eloquently speak," Hernandez said, then he would suggest "we just throw out" the whole budget process and let groups speak before council.
Gibson-Carter replied that hers wasn't the only organization not to apply or attend so she "can only conclude Rape Crisis Center is being discriminated against."
In addition Gibson-Carter said, "You cut funds to social services but then institute a Fire Fee. Who does that?"
As yesterday's meeting was a first reading of the the budget and the Fire Fee proposal, no vote was taken. Another opportunity to speak will come in two weeks at the regular Dec. 21 Council meeting.