THE NEW Savannah City Council took office within days of the Georgia General Assembly — that’s what our state legislature is called — beginning its annual 40-day session in Atlanta.
Understandably, the brand-new Council immediately had to turn its attention to that very important development.
They did so by formulating a legislative agenda, with items that would by law need to be debated and voted on at the state legislative level, by our state legislators.
Some of the items call for sweeping change, others are much more modest.
Before we discuss that, a minor dust-up at last week’s City Council meeting — the first full, regular meeting of the new Van Johnson administration — illustrates the need to clear up a few misunderstandings.
There was an effort by a number of new Council members to cancel the contract the City of Savannah has with a legislative lobbying firm called Connect South (absolutely zero relation to this newspaper).
While the amount of the contract is small — $60,000 a year — I believe the new members were trying to send a message that it is no longer business as usual, and anything inherited from the previous administration is fair game.
In the end, the effort was unsuccessful, primarily due to the efforts of Mayor Johnson and Alderman Nick Palumbo, who both said cancelling the contract would leave Savannah without a lobbying presence in the legislature at this very key time.
The public response was interesting.
Many people wondered pointedly, “Why does the City need to pay lobbyists in Atlanta to lobby the legislature? Isn’t that what we elect our state senators and state representatives to do?”
Yes and no.
The simple truth is that our state legislators often have very different agendas from local officials.
A classic example is gun rights. This Council wants action on gun reform, whereas one of our state reps, Ron Stephens, is a pro-gun rights Republican.
There are many, many other examples.
Also — and this might come as quite a shock to some of you — Savannah isn’t the only city in the world, nor even the most important city in the state.
There are seven other municipalities just in Chatham County alone which may not agree with what Savannah wants or demands scarce state funds for.
Now does it make more sense that Savannah might want to pay a lobbyist instead of leaving everything up to other elected officials in the area?
Another fact is that state legislators need educating, sometimes a lot of educating, on basic issues.
We often think of lobbyists as being caricatured Gucci-loafered, soulless corporate toadies. However, many lobbyists are simply ordinary people who care passionately about an issue and have chosen to get involved — for example, in the areas of reproductive rights, gun safety, or animal rescue, to name a few.
Many “lobbyists” are actually homemakers, retired people, parents, students, and others with a genuine personal, rather than purely professional, interest in our state laws.
They take it on themselves to explain, educate, and yes, sometimes annoy in order to get their item further up a legislator’s agenda.
This is what is otherwise known as democracy.
So what is the legislative agenda your new Savannah Mayor and Council are pushing, whether in person or through lobbyists? Here’s a quick breakdown:
Confiscated Weapons. Currently, most confiscated weapons by law must be auctioned off. The City wants the option whether to auction or destroy them.
Reduce Gun Violence. This would focus on supporting so-called red flag laws, expanded background checks, limits on magazine capacity, and – maybe thorniest of all – expanding the City’s authority to ban firearms in certain public areas.
Recycling Funding. Would allow the current fee on solid waste to be expanded to help fund recycling efforts.
Sovereign Immunity. One of the more sweeping items. This would limit City liability and cap payout amounts in personal injury lawsuits. Currently the City faces extreme budget jeopardy when they have to pay multi-million dollar settlements, such as the landmark $9.5 million settlement with Shanta Greene after a tree limb on City property fell on her, causing extensive bodily trauma. City Attorney Bates Lovett has warned Council directly that continued high-dollar settlements and payouts of this nature can literally lead to loss of police and fire coverage citywide.
SDRA Board. This would lower the required number of board members of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority — itself slated for a bit of a renewal — to 17 from 25.
Smoke Alarms. Would allow City to increase penalities for not having them in rental properties.
Logistics Technology Corridor. Would add a suite of tax incentives to encourage its formation and development.
Tax Revenue. Would “explore different revenue streams to help lower property taxes.” The shortest agenda item with probably the widest impact on citizens and businesses, likely including an effort at instituting impact fees on new development. I’d keep a really close eye on this if I were you.
Cap on Swings in Commercial Tax Assessments. Self-explanatory but potentially sweeping in impact.
Staggered Term Limits for City Council. Much easier said than done, and also one worth watching closely.
Safe Houses. Expand funding and development to cut down on child abuse and trafficking.
Small Business Personal Property Tax Exemption. Increase from $7500 to $10,000.
Port Container Fee. A real biggie! I and others have long advocated for reinstating a modest fee per container coming through the Port of Savannah, earmarked for local purposes. The current SPLOST only funds construction projects and can’t be used to help with affordable housing, poverty, etc.
Update Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant. Port-related.
Behavioral Health Crisis Centers. Support/increase funding.
HUD Funds. Seek more funds from federal gov’t for housing.
Protect Local Abandoned Shopping Cart Ordinance. Essentially pushes back against the retail store lobby, which is fighting increased accountability for reclaiming shopping carts.
STVRs. Would preserve the City’s ability to regulate Airbnbs and other vacation rentals against state interference.
Local Rule on Building Standards. Another real biggie — this fights a state effort to basically eliminate a city’s power to regulate zoning and building standards. Watch this one very closely!
Property Tax Bill Fees. Would oppose limitation to how cities manage property tax bills.
As you can see, some of these items, however innocuously worded, might have great local impact. We’ll keep you posted as developments occur.