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Editor's Note: Looking ahead to a hot political year locally

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WE JUST GOT through a big election season — with a runoff still to go this coming Tuesday — but rest assured that the campaigns for the City of Savannah elections in 2019 will begin soon enough.

Some are clearly already underway.

There will be plenty of time for more discussion as the races take shape, but I thought this was as good a time as any to take a birds-eye look at the local picture:

• The Breakdown: The balance of City Council roughly breaks down to a thin majority comprising Mayor Eddie DeLoach and Bill Durrence, Julian Miller, and Brian Foster, with Carol Bell and John Hall as frequent swing votes.

If a desire for change is felt by voters, it’s that group which will likely feel it the most, the first four in particular.

The trio of Van Johnson, Estella Shabazz, and Tony Thomas form a counterweight and also often vote as a unit.

I sometimes call them the I Told You So Party, since much local politics still involves constantly relitigating the 2015 election, when DeLoach defeated incumbent Mayor Edna Jackson. Johnson, Shabazz, and Thomas were all vocal Jackson supporters.

One of the frustrating things about local politics now is the bizarre insistence by many people that there are only two choices: Stick with what we have, or go back in time four years to the previous administration.

For some reason the idea of a different direction, separate and distinct from either, still seems novel to many folks.

The wild card here of course is whether or not Van Johnson will, as speculated, throw his hat into the ring to run as Mayor.

• Public Safety: Mayor DeLoach and many of the newer names on Council mostly owe their seats to campaigning on public safety in the wake of a spike in violent crime that took place over part of the previous administration.

While the numbers are indeed much better – homicides in particular are way down – that’s no guarantee that another spike won’t happen next year to throw the election into a tizzy.

Dark clouds are on the horizon, in the form of continuing difficulty in retaining Savannah Police officers in the wake of the de-merger of metro police. By one count, SPD is still down nearly 100 officers.

The seeming inability for the department to stay competitive on pay and benefits — even after the de-merger, when we were told that morale and efficiency would improve — is bound to have an impact on the crime numbers at some point, possibly sooner rather than later.

As for Savannah Fire and Emergency Services, people may not need them as often as they do the police, but when you need them, you really, really need them.

And the news there could have an impact on the election as well.

In the wake of the demise of the deeply controversial fire fee — which itself will hang over the elections like a ghost — City Manager Rob Hernandez is following through on consolidation of fire services due to lack of funding.

Most controversial among these moves is the de-commissioning of Marine One, the department’s waterborne response vessel, along with its Engine Company.

This is the same unit which lost a firefighter in the line of duty in 2016 on the Savannah River, Michael Curry. The high-tech rescue vessel was recently acquired, in 2015 with a federal grant, and was used during that 2016 dock collapse.

The budget cuts are provoking unrest in the fire department itself – and firefighters vote too! – but also seem to send a mixed message about Council’s commitment to public safety.

There might be sound operational reasons for decommissioning the Marine unit, but the optics – prioritizing money over lives – make for really bad politics.

Alderman Miller is particularly on the hot seat, no pun intended. He was quoted as saying Marine One is “a luxury I’m not sure we can afford at this point in time.”

There is heavy industry all up and down the Savannah River, with record volume at the Port of Savannah. There are more and more high-profile hotels going up along the river with more and more rooftop bars overlooking it.

The success of all that pretty much depends on the Savannah River not being engulfed in flames at some point.

Indeed, the only “luxury” might be in considering these interests expendable in the case of disaster. God forbid these words should come back to haunt Miller, the rest of Council, and all of us.

• Spending Priorities: For a Council that campaigned on public safety, there is more and more of a perception that what really matters to them is easing the way for development interests downtown, and immediately surrounding it.

Some of this is unfair criticism. For example, the idea for the Arena/Canal District originated many years ago under different Councils and came up for a public vote.

But there is a building groundswell of opinion that wonders why more isn’t being spent on overdue infrastructure improvement, since we obviously can find the money for projects catering to visitors.

The public seems wary of the idea that the City is both hurting for money — “the cupboard is bare,” as DeLoach said — yet also flush enough to issue bonds for a parking garage at Eastern Wharf and yet more streetscaping for Broughton Street. (No knock on Broughton, but you’d think that’s the only road in town sometimes.)

Two controversial SPLOST projects will become physical reality next year for voter reaction, whether positive or negative: The Cultural Arts Center is slated to open, and the Arena will officially break ground.

Meanwhile, as SPLOST funds rain down on tourist-oriented projects, community centers outside the tourist zone are in danger of shutting down for good, Hudson Hill Community Center chief among them.

Look for that issue, in particular, to be a hot-button one, and especially if Johnson makes a run for the Mayor’s seat.

• City Attorney: The decision – being deliberated as you read this — of who will take the place of retiring City Attorney Brooks Stillwell might be a sleeper issue.

If the new City Attorney pick is seen as very pro-development, that could cement any negative public perception that this Mayor and Council majority are in the pockets of development interests.

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