IT WASN’T necessarily a surprise, but Savannah did indeed get an early Christmas present of sorts this past Thursday, Dec. 22, when City Council unanimously voted to adopt a new 2017 budget that would restore deep and controversial funding cuts that had been proposed for the arts and social services.
As was the case with the previous Council meeting dealing with the topic on Dec. 8, a large and motivated crowd of citizens showed up to voice their strongest possible support for restoring the funds.
This time, however, there was a bit of street theatre, as the folks from Art Rise Savannah and Emergent Savannah helped organize a rally next to City Hall prior to the meeting, with kids activities and arts-and-craft displays, showing the street-level positive impact of both the arts and the social services on young minds.
It was not only an inspiring display of the power of community, it was a reminder that citizens can and do have the power to sway our elected and appointed officials.
It also makes one wonder why more citizens don’t become more organized to affect positive change in this manner, when you can see that it can indeed get immediate results.
The upshot of the meeting wasn’t literally the best-case scenario, but it came pretty darn close.
City Manager Rob Hernandez, in what I feel was quite a magnanimous gesture, restored the proposed budget cuts in the least impactful manner to the public at large: By finding the money in his own office’s budget.
While there is still an effort on City Council to raise property taxes to help balance the budget — an idea championed by Alderman John Hall in particular — it seems we avoided that controversy again.
Notably, the restoration of the Cultural Affairs programming budget will be to 2016 levels, rather than to the Commission’s recommendations for 2017.
This effectively wipes away the diligence and hard work of the Cultural Affairs Commission in reviewing and prioritizing the programming efforts of local nonprofits.
I agree with Cultural Affairs Chairman Raymond Gaddy — also our resident Brew/Drink/Run columnist! — that the funding should have taken into account the Commission’s recommendations.
But that said, this was much better than the cuts going through as planned. Not to mention better than a tax hike.
I was also heartened that Hernandez said the proposed three-year phaseout of funding for individual nonprofits was no longer being considered as an option in this round of budgeting.
While he did leave the door open for this in my opinion misguided concept, I was happy to see it not be an issue this time around.
In any case, folks in the local nonprofit community now have time to plan for next time the threatening proposal pops up.
One of the things I learned covering this controversy is how ill-informed many Savannah citizens are about the process of funding local nonprofits.
I was amazed how much bad blood exists in some quarters of the public towards local nonprofits, whether cultural or social services organizations.
This disconnect is in effect the flip side of the enhanced community engagement I mentioned above.
Simply put, there is a body of opinion out there that says virtually any public investment in local nonprofits is an irresponsible waste of money.
More to the point, there is a dangerous misconception that most nonprofits just get whatever they ask for without any accountability whatsoever.
I can tell you that in the case of the Cultural Affairs Commission, this literally couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The Commission diligently works to grade local nonprofits and contextualize their contributions from year-to-year to their targeted audiences and stakeholder groups.
While there is always room for improvement— and there is plenty of overall waste everywhere that could be addressed — it is simply inaccurate to say that local nonprofits are generally not held to standards of accountability in the use of taxpayer funds.
The task of educating the public does of course largely fall to the media, and one of my New Year’s Resolutions for Connect Savannah is for us to do a better job of informing the public of the more basic, yet often overlooked aspects of civic engagement locally.
But to me by far the most interesting comments at the meeting came from Alderman at Large Brian Foster, who is basically seen as the financial guru of the current Council.
Speaking in broad terms about the budget — and being basically supportive of restoring the funds in question — Foster did warn that Savannah very soon faces a potential fiscal crisis.
He said Savannah is “many, many years behind from a capital standpoint” in funding big-picture sectors such as drainage and public safety.
Meanwhile, Foster says that over half a billion of dollars in private investment in Savannah is in the pipeline for the near future.
You don’t have to be a financial guru to see that these two facts will inevitably collide, probably sooner rather than later.
I believe this is what City Manager Hernandez is referring to when he mentions the need to significantly reexamine how Savannah builds its budgets in the future.
Word to the wise: Next time it might not be so easy to get your funds restored. Forewarned is forearmed.