AT 2018’s midpoint, let’s take a breath and have a look at some of the positives — yes, the positives! — as well as the negatives in local government over the last six months.
Crime is down. Objectively, there can be little debate that the DeLoach administration — much maligned for the now-defunct Fire Fee as well as the perception that it is too cozy with developer interests — has largely delivered on its main campaign promise of reducing crime.
Violent crime is down in the City of Savannah 16 percent from last year, with homicides standing at 10 in the Savannah Police jurisidiction – down from 16 at this time in 2017 and a jaw-dropping 26 at this time in 2016. In Chatham County, crime is down a little over five percent.
Increased partnership with other agencies means that violent and/or repeat offenders are much less likely to get charges reduced with plea deals, meaning Savannah’s streets are safer.
The fact that all this happened in the wake of a controversial de-merging of City and County police is perhaps all the more remarkable and worthy of kudos.
Marijuana Reform. The word “decriminalization” is often, and perhaps mistakenly, used to refer to the City of Savannah’s groundbreaking liberalization on marijuana.
Technically pot will still be illegal, but the fact remains that recreational possession under an ounce will be met with a ticket instead of arrest and jail time.
The reform effort is seen as an important move toward stemming the tide of youth caught up in the cycle of street-to-jail for minor offenses —which often have a way of spiraling into major offenses.
However, word to the wise: The ordinance only applies to weed users within City of Savannah limits. Chatham County cops, and officers in the other municipalities in the county, will not be required to be as lenient.
Historic District Zoning update. A long-overdue amendment to the zoning protocol is expected to add more stringent criteria for developers to qualify for the oft-dreaded “bonus story,” an add-on to what is already allowed.
It would also clarify that “large-scale development” is anything five stories and over across all zoning districts – four in residential zones. There will also be an expansion of the Historic District Board of Review as a full-fledged regulatory body in addition to the MPC and City Council.
But as always with things of this nature, one is tempted to ask: Is it too little, too late? Not to mention: Why is a bonus story allowed at all?
Turnabout on Fire Fee. Yeah, I’m reaching here. The only good thing for this administration to come out of the Fire Fee debacle was their decision to get rid of it before it even went fully into effect.
However, for what it’s worth, City Manager Rob Hernandez claims that a lot of good came from the public’s greatly increased interaction with Savannah Fire & Emergency Services as they attempted to qualify for discounts.
Movement on Memorials. Wise leadership from Mayor DeLoach and Council earlier this year meant that Savannah avoided bitter and divisive controversy over Civil War memorials.
Rather than an extended political fight over removing the Confederate Monument in Forsyth Park, stakeholders opted for a middle ground which would keep the monument, but add more interpretive signage.
Also, two nearby busts of Confederate leaders — not a part of the Monument’s original establishment anyway — have a new home in Laurel Grove Cemetery.
Fire Fee erodes credibility. Almost every ounce of political goodwill the current administration may have had was burned up with the months-long failed effort to convince the public of the need for a new Fire Fee.
While the now-repealed fee itself is a moot point, everything that happens until the next election will be overshadowed by the enormity of this misstep.
In a very rare development in these polarized times, Savannahians of all descriptions — rich, poor, black, white, private sector, public sector, etc. — agreed on one thing: The Fire Fee will not stand.
In the end, elected officials may not be the only casualties of the debacle. Hernandez has been a finalist for not just one, but two other city manager jobs in other cities in the meantime.
Parking hikes outrage public. Any number of very intelligent people can make the case that parking downtown, because it is in such high demand, should be priced to reflect that demand.
Savannah is far from the only popular city to raise the cost of parking. Nearly the same day we raised ours, Charleston also doubled their downtown parking rates.
But from a political perspective the City’s decision to double parking rates and extend parking hours to six days a week downtown was an unqualified disaster.
Parking may have been priced artificially low, but context is important: The parking increase coupled with the unpopular Fire Fee — not to mention a surprise $10 million surplus — fed perceptions that City government is simply too money-hungry for the public good.
A Bridge Too Far. Technically it’s not a failure of City government, which did all it could. But a bid to rename the Talmadge Bridge failed to pass the Georgia legislature, so the segregationist governor’s name will remain, at least officially, on the huge span across the Savannah River.
But in an intriguing variant of asking for forgiveness rather than permission, the City erected signs near the bridge using their suggested, if still unofficial, name: The Savannah Bridge.
Spending Addiction. Two new parking garages — to the tune of $50 million apiece — are just the beginning of the list of big-ticket expenditures ramping up over the past year. (Just the design of the new Westside Arena, before a single shovel hits the ground, will cost nearly $9 million.)
The City’s intense focus on pouring taxpayer money into infrastructure and amenities on both the east and west ends of the tourist district has left residents in other parts of the City wondering if they’re chopped liver.