AT THIS week’s meeting, City Council will hopefully put a bow on a Christmas present of sorts to the citizens of Savannah: Restoring planned funding to arts and social services agencies.
The contentious Dec. 8 meeting, in which dozens of community members lined up to implore Council and new City Manager Rob Hernandez not to go through with the planned 2017 cuts, was an exercise in civic engagement and responsibility.
And unlike most of these affairs, it apparently wasn’t a Pyrrhic victory: The weight of public opinion swayed Mayor DeLoach and Council to direct Hernandez to find a way to restore the funds.
Power to the people, indeed. It was nothing short of inspiring.
Now, as with everything, the devil is in the details. You’ve got to find the funds in order to restore them.
To that end, Hernandez and City staff came up with a menu of five options, four of which tweak the 2017 municipal budget to restore the budget cuts to cultural organizations and social services organizations.
The options are:
1. Adopt the Dec. 8 budget with budget cuts intact, i.e. the null option.
2. Delay an additional 20 percent Freeport Inventory Tax Exemption. This retains the current 20 percent exemption but would cost about $800,000 in revenue.
3. Increase the property tax millage rate, i.e. the “you want it, you pay for it” tax hike option.
4. Delay or cut various bureaucratic studies involving strategic and economic planning, IT upgrades, and “rebranding” initiatives.
5. Further increase borrowing from the reserve fund, i.e., run up the credit card even more and jeopardize Savannah’s bond rating.
Any regular reader of this column will quickly suss that I myself would be in favor of Options 2 or 4.
That said, strategic planning and the like are extremely vital, especially in our current struggle to balance the tourist economy with quality of life issues.
And there is also a very urgent need, as Hernandez has identified, to modernize Savannah’s ancient IT infrastructure (I’m talking to you, six-month-behind utility bills). This I think is paramount.
But there are many creative ways to formulate strategic plans, and to conduct salary studies, and to “rebrand” (I can help do that for free!).
If arts and social services organizations can be told to be more creative in managing their budgets, we can tell government to do the same. Goose, gander, etc.
However, the most controversial portion of this menu of options isn’t any of that. It’s in the fine print, at the end of the City Manager’s memo:
“The Council also directed that we modify our nonprofit grant programs to limit funding to a maximum period of three years, with a gradual phase out during the three-year period.”
That may sound harmless, but in my opinion could be nothing short of disastrous.
I fully support the idea that nonprofits should have a diversified funding stream, and shouldn’t rely too much on taxpayers.
But this clause comes uncomfortably close to comparing arts and social services nonprofits to welfare recipients, who just need a helping hand until they can stand on their own two feet, etc., etc.
Culture and Social Services aren’t victims in need of help. They are ongoing, continuous investments we make as a community to make our community work better and be more enjoyable for everyone.
At the granular level, in my experience asking a small local nonprofit to phase out City grants and rely purely on corporate donors in the Savannah area is a recipe for disaster.
Almost a third of our city is below the poverty line. Most nonprofits in town famously must rely on a very small, finite number of entities with deep pockets: Gulfstream, Landings residents, a handful of philanthropic families.
Savannah is still a small market, and the pool of non-government funding is still a small and shallow one.
Factor in the apparent trend that every year the United Way seems to subsume more of the local fundraising universe into its own bailiwick, and you see that a “three-year window” to phase out funds for some groups could be more akin to a slow walk to the gallows.
(As for federal grants for arts and social services: You may have heard that a new president was elected! One very unlikely to support these kinds of funding efforts.)
I would urge citizens who go to City Hall Dec. 22 to ask Council to support Option Number 2 or 4, and urge Council and City Manager Hernandez to reconsider the proposed three-year phaseout.