A USUALLY bitterly divided Savannah City Council managed to agree on something at last week’s regular meeting.
They voted unanimously to adopt a property tax increase in the wake of their repeal of the controversial Fire Fee.
The tax rate in the City will go from 12.48 to 13.4 mills, about a 7.5 percent increase.
Council admitted that holding the tax increase to less than a full mill was largely a matter of “optics,” to use Alderwoman Carol Bell’s word.
Alderman Julian Miller, previously a supporter of the Fee, said “I hoped we could do this without a tax increase, but I don’t like the City we would have to live in if we don’t do something.”
Alderman Van Johnson, longtime opponent of the Fee, said, “No one likes raising taxes... but our millage rate as it is is not sustainable.”
Alderman Tony Thomas, another opponent of the Fee, defended the tax increase, saying “this will be the second time in 20 years we’ve raised taxes,” and that “the School Board just voted last night to raise theirs.”
In discussion prior to the vote, Alderman Brian Foster said that during the process of gaining more information about the Fire Fee, Council discovered many interesting and often surprising things — including that about a third of all properties in Savannah either pay zero or near zero in property taxes.
“We learned over the last several months some critical things about why Savannah is so different” from other similar sized cities that have used Fire Fees, he said.
Foster said there are 5800 tax-exempt properties, with 19,000 properties in total not paying taxes.
Foster added that some large property owners were facing $70,000 Fire Fees, some industrial owners already pay a Fire Fee, and some property owners would be paying four or five times more in Fire Fees than in actual property tax.
Alderman Bill Durrence complimented City Manager Rob Hernandez for his work in coming up with several budget options without the Fire Fee, saying that this essentially means “for the first time someone took a long term look at the budget.”
Several Council members defended Hernandez from public scorn regarding the Fire Fee idea, even as they seemed to throw him under the bus a week before.
“The attacks on the City Manager are way out of line,” Durrence said sternly.
Foster called out local media by name, including Connect Savannah, for reporting that Hernandez got a pay increase. (What we reported was that he is budgeted to get one.)
In voicing support for Hernandez, Thomas joked to the City Manager that “I have 45 Mark Streeter cartoons, I think, and you have one,” a reference to the longtime political cartoonist for the Savannah Morning News.
“There’s a lot of angst directed toward the City Manager as if he made this decision himself,” Thomas said. “I don’t fault you for the Fire Fee, you did your job.”
Regarding the news that Hernandez is a finalist for the City Manager job in Brownsville, Texas, Alderwoman Estella Shabazz directly asked the City Manager if he’s going to stay in Savannah.
City Attorney Brooks Stillwell immediately said, “I don’t think that’s appropriate to ask.”
In other Council news:
The $8.8 million award of a design contract for the new Westside Arena was briefly sidetracked so that the preferred bidder could take steps to “self-identify” more completely as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE).
The City Manager had to explain to Council that the City “no longer tracks” minority-owned businesses; the nomenclature is now the “race and gender neutral” Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) description.
Alderwoman Shabazz said, “I have a serious problem” with the criteria for awarding the Arena design contract, saying it’s “not representative of this community.” She demanded to see what she called the “ethnic breakdown” of bidders and potential subcontractors.
Johnson opened the discussion of awarding the Arena design contract by saying, “Welcome to another part of the most significant public undertaking that this City will ever undertake.”
Also: an anticipated revision to the Alcoholic Beverage Ordinance was approved which will eliminate the very unpopular and cumbersome bar card requirement and mandatory background check for servers.
However, the new Ordinance will not include a proposed Administrative Hearing Officer to handle liquor licenses.
Johnson says he wants to retain the right to “weigh in personally” on each liquor license.