It was a meeting so big that it started in one place and ended in another.
On April 23, the Savannah City Council met with representatives of the Budgeting for Results teams. The teams are made up of city employees who have volunteered to determine ways the city can cut costs yet continue to provide or even improve services.
"It’s a very exciting thing to proceed with this in a time of turmoil and stress," Mayor Otis Johnson said to a crowd of employees. "Not since World War II have we seen anything like this (current economic crisis).
"If anybody tells you they know when we’ll come out of the recession, they’re lying," Johnson said. "Other cities have had to cut staff, reduce staff or reduce programs. We haven’t had to do that."
But the city needs to tighten its belt, and Johnson commended the employees for their efforts and concern for the city as a whole. "It’s very easy to only think about your department, but that’s false thinking," he says. "If you have one link that is weak, it’s all weak. If you put pressure on the chain, then the link snaps and you’ve got a bad situation."
The use of teams is new for the city, Johnson said. "This is going to set Savannah ahead of a lot of communities," he said. "Savannah has always won awards for its budget programs, and I think Savannah will win awards for this new practice."
The meeting then moved from the council’s meeting room to its media room to meet with the teams one by one. Up first was the Health and Environment Team, headed by Heath Lloyd.
"What we’re trying to do is identify the services that matter most to citizens," he said. "Our focus was to promote health and preserve the environment."
The team has looked at citizen satisfaction with the city’s health and environmental services and examined the regulations that must be met. They’re also investigating the city’s capacity to provide those services.
"Savannah is continuing to expand," Lloyd said. "Right now, we’re annexing areas. We’re going to have to take in consideration the impact that will have on the environment."
The team has discussed strategies, including a plan to ensure the city provides safe drinking water. "We’re going to have to get the community involved if we’re going be successful at any of this," Lloyd said. "Programs such as conservation can help provide safe drinking water and protect the environment, as well."
Other areas under consideration are rivers and streams, storm water and watershed management and management of waste treatment plants. Clean streets and neighborhoods mean the city must control vectors, or rodents, such as rats, Lloyd said.
Sanitation management also is critical. "If we don’t pick up trash, that is where the vectors are going to live," Lloyd said. "Street sweeping is important to get litter off the streets. So is blight eradication. Abandoned homes are places where vectors are going to be populous."
Marty Johnson, director of the Savannah Civic Center, represented the Culture and Recreation Team. Her team has been looking at other cities for comparison. "What makes our city different is the cultural and recreational opportunities," she said.
"We want to stress that part of this is getting people up and moving, getting people active, whether they are taking art classes or after school computer classes," Johnson said. "Our team had lofty goals. Our first recommendation is to increase possibilities for adult and youth interaction."
That could lead to improved promotion rates in schools, Johnson said. Also important is the maintenance of public facilities so residents will feel safer and more inclined to use them.
"We analyzed maps to show where they exist," Johnson said. "A lot had residents living within one mile of the facility. We’d like to see that so that residents are within half to a quarter mile of a facility."
Data indicates one in five 4-year-olds are obese. "We’re headed toward an epidemic," Johnson said. "Our team felt if we did not address this crisis, this city is going to have a lot of problems."
The team also looked a culture and recreation as a framework for education and enrichment. "It helps challenge racial, social, economic barriers," Johnson said.
It’s common knowledge that Savannah has issues with some children, Johnson said. "It’s cheaper to keep children in recreational programs where they are supervised and monitored than in juvenile detention programs," she said. "Programs help develop values, a sense of team and social bonds."
The city should also look to partnerships, especially with the public school system, to provide facilities and programs, Johnson said. "In economic times like this, we all have to work together," she said. "Every neighborhood deserves what the downtown has. At Forsyth Park, you see people walking, sitting in the sun, reading, playing soccer. It’s the epitome of what parks should be."
The Poverty Reduction Team was represented by Megan Duffy. That team’s goal is to remove citizens from poverty and move them towards self-sufficiency.
Duffy’s team concluded that educational programs are essential to developing a skilled workforce. Things that affect that are childcare, health care, housing, family planning, food and transportation -- or the lack of any of those things.
"If their basic needs are met, people can work towards self-sufficiency," Duffy said. "We recognize that home ownership is a good thing, but realize not everyone is prepared for that."
Alderwoman Mary Osborne noted that poverty reduction is a mind-set. "You don’t have to feel poor," she said. "Poor people used to take pride in their property."
Some housing projects once had tool libraries, with tools and mowers residents were encouraged to use for upkeep, Osborne said. "There are homeowners’ associations, but I don’t ever hear anything about renters programs," she said. "That is something we probably want to look at."
City Manager Michael Brown noted that renters, particularly in Section 8 housing, aren’t always viewed in as favorable a light as homeowners. "But you see rentals where people do have pride, and plant flowers," he said. "Section 8 is not an evil institution, it’s just a way to get a family’s income supplemented."
The Public Safety Team was represented by facilitator Carol Bell. All residents want to be safe and feel safe from crime, she said.
"We want you to consider and think about public safety as more than hazards from fires and crime," Bell said. "It comprises several others hazards, including natural and man-made disasters, structural hazards, vehicle hazards, mass gatherings and weapons of mass destruction."
The team has been looking at response times, which demonstrates how effective community services are, Bell said. The team also has studied crime statistics and other data.
Sean Brandon of the Economic Growth Results Team said the core of economic growth comes down to the creation and sustaining of jobs. "We want jobs, but we want jobs the community as a whole can be proud of," he said.
The team has been looking at the number of tax certificates issued to determine how many new businesses have been opened in Savannah. The recruitment of new businesses or the growth of existing businesses is essential to the city’s success, Brandon said.
Susan Broker heads the Neighborhood Vitality Team, which views the city’s neighborhoods as one of its greatest assets. "We hear citizens talk about the character of their neighborhoods and what’s compatible for that neighborhood," she said.
Well-maintained structures are important, as are open spaces in the public realm. "We’ve also talked about streets, sidewalks, tree lawns, and how that all leads to safer and pedestrian=friendly neighborhoods," Broker said.
"Our citizens are also one of our greatest assets," she said. "We need to make sure citizens are part of the government process and it is our responsibility to keep them informed and educated about the processes. We want to make sure we bring citizens along every step of the way."
Alderman Clifton Jones said there is something wrong with city policy. "You drive down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and you see some things that were there forever," he said.
"The city itself needs to tighten up," Jones said. "There’s a structure at MLK and Anderson that is so bad there is no way it can be in code compliance. In some areas, you see bulldozers, in other areas, you don’t see that."
Brown responded that the building in question is not only historic, it’s gotten tax credits for a promised restoration that hasn’t occurred. "Maybe our policy is that we shouldn’t be patient," Brown said.
The mayor agreed city policy is not consistent. "If a structure doesn’t meet code, we need an expedient way to make them come to code or get the building down," he said. "Who the landlord is or who the organization is makes a big difference in the enforcement process."
Bret Bell, director of the city’s public information office, is head of the High Performing Government Team. One of the city’s strengths is its five-year capital improvement program, he said.
Citizen engagement and customer service are areas the team is studying. City employees should be professional and timely at all times, Bell said.
The city currently has about 2,500 employees. "We want to foster an innovative and creative workplace," Bell said. "Fresh blood is always good, but we value experience. A lot of employees are going to be future leaders. I’ve been amazed at the talent in this organization."
The teams include members from several city bureaus and agencies. "The energy and the level of consciousness many of our employees have around this issue is encouraging," the mayor said. "They’re talking about the future. If the personal commitment isn’t there, the enthusiasm to do the work isn’t there."
"One unintended consequence (of the team effort) is that you realize what incredible talent we have," Assistant City Manager Chris Morrill said. "This is one of the most exciting processes I’ve been involved in my career."
"It gives an old man hope that things will be all right," the mayor added, to laughter from the audience.
When the presentations were over, Brown told the council that the information will help the council adjust the city budget. "I know this has taken some time," he said. "I know there’s some conflict in this. We are trying to be responsive to that.
"We’re going to have new and different economic times," Brown said. "Savannah has never been on a fast track, it’s been on a steady track. We may not have taken the fast road, but then we don’t crash and burn."
"The thing some of us set out to do six years ago was to establish a vision for the city, then operate on that vision and make it real," the mayor said. "I’m very happy today. To see something move from the abstract to the concrete is very, very satisfying."
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Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.