There were no doubts that last week's City Council meeting was going to be contentious. After all, the two matters up for discussion were an increase in the property tax millage rate and the first reading of the smoke free ordinance, but nobody foresaw how events would play out (except maybe Paul the psychic octopus.)
Alderman Larry Stuber opened the meeting with an invocation for "civility" and "constructive debate." His prayer specifically referenced the millage and smoking ordinance discussions, which gave the rest of council a nervous chuckle.
In one of the few instances where Mayor Johnson has smiled during a public meeting recently, he offered to nominate Stuber as the official chaplin for the council, based on his exceptional performance with the prayer.
Coup de mills
Acting City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney rolled out the red carpet for public discussion about the millage hike with a presentation outlining the city's current financial situation and a bit of historical perspective on the millage rate.
The funds generated by the .5 mills increase is expected to generate $1.9 million in revenue that will be used to fill a shortfall of $3.2 million for the current budget year. The additional $1.3 million would be drawn from the sales tax stabilization fund, which currently has about $5.4 million.
The budget deficit was caused by a $3.8 million decline in the tax digest due to decreasing property values. Property taxes make up about 35 percent of the city's annual general fund revenue, the largest portion of any revenue stream.
The most telling slide in the presentation, and the one that the mayor asked to have left on screen during the public hearing, showed the steady decline in the millage rate over the last 13 years, down to 12.5 mills last year from a high of 17 mills more than a decade ago.
When the floor was opened to the public, the first speaker was Michael Dudich, who raised the bar for public discourse with a well-researched series of questions about the impacts of eastside Tax Allocation District (TAD), which was created when Savannah River Landing still seemed viable in order to help fund improvements.
According to Dudich's analysis, debt service on $20 million worth of bonds let by the city to help improve infrastructure around the site now accounts for 20 percent of the deficit, about $600,000. In 2012, that amount increases to $1.1 million.
"Something isn't right," Dudich told council members. "Citizens cannot underwrite $1 million per year for the next 20 years."
The discussion was off to a good start, but was unwound by a communication breakdown that spoke volumes about the ongoing recession's effect on individuals on "Main Street," as nearly everything beyond Manhattan's financial district is affectionately known.
"I've been reading in the paper about salary increases," said Judith Goethe, who expressed dismay that council would approve raises for department heads during such difficult economic times, and then pass the burden onto local homeowners. "Some of you are gonna be voted on next year."
Wanting to clarify any confusion over the extent of the council's authority on pay-related matters, Mayor Johnson told her, "let me give you my lesson in civics 101," before explaining that council can only hire three positions: The city attorney, clerk of council and the city manager.
Council's position on the pay raises is that they were enacted by Michael Brown prior to his departure unbeknownst to council, who, according to the city's charter, have no authority over staff salaries (a measure put in place in 1954 to end a tradition of corruption and nepotism that nearly lead to the city's financial collapse.)
Addressing questions about the salary for the Acting City Manager, the mayor explained that her raise, which now has her collecting more than Brown did when he left, was the result of calculations using a formula the city adopted for interim positions, an estimated 10 percent increase over the salary of the candidate's previous position.
The meeting became tense when Goethe, who was visibly upset, told the mayor "I see how you dominate these people [referring to the council members], and I know my skin is a different color than yours."
Once race was brought up, any hopes of practical discussion dissolved and the next 20-30 minutes were spent with five council members alternately trying to explain the economics of the tax increase and reprimanding her for bringing race into a discussion about the millage rate.
Frustration among council was palpable, and it's clear they've fielded no shortage of angry calls and emails from citizens displeased with the unpopular measure.
"We're asking for the support of the citizens," said Mayor Pro Tem Edna Jackson, who pointed out that no one came to complain when council lowered the millage rate year after year. "We've done what we can to make the quality of life what it is."
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em (for now)
The first reading of what is now known as the City of Savannah Smoke Free Air Act of 2010 was up next, including what would now be the third opportunity for public input on the proposed ordinance.
Some significant changes have been made over the course of the last few weeks, including a fine increase: The maximum fee for a first time violation was raised from $50 to $100. Also, additional clarification was also added to the process business owners must go through with non-compliant patrons in order to avoid being held responsible for the violation.
The most discussed issue to date has been the 20 foot distance requirement, which many critics felt would be all but impossible to comply with across most of downtown. In the current draft, that has now been reduced to 10 feet, or a "reasonable distance," defined as "a distance sufficient to ensure indoor areas remain smoke-free."
Local hotels had some wiggle room carved into the new draft. They would now be allowed to have up to 20 percent of rooms be designated as smoking rooms. Previously, all the smoking rooms had to be on the same floor and separate from any non-smoking rooms.
The change to the hotel allowance was questioned by Club One manager Travis Coles, who sought to have the same exemption allowed for bars large enough to provide a completely separate area for smokers, similar to the smoking rooms in airports, and not to exceed 20 percent of the total square footage of the establishment.
One of only two representatives from the bar community to participate in the meeting, Coles also requested council consider an exemption for non-service patios and to clarify liability for what goes on outside the bar beyond the control of management and staff.
Among his concerns was that if dozens of patrons were outside smoking, and a passerby made a disparaging or homophobic comment, then the matter would become a public safety risk for which management could not be held responsible.
Among other comments offered for the record was a request to exclude "e-cigarettes" from the ordinance on the grounds that they helped people quit smoking, and had no negative health effects (something that has yet to be determined officially by the FDA).
Another 30-40 minutes was used by a procession of health professionals who reiterated the negative health effects of tobacco products and second hand smoke.
Two and a half hours after the meeting began, council still had yet to deal with bids and contracts for equipment and services, or discuss a resolution honoring Anne Knight Jordan, a member of the Women's Army Auxillary Corp, which was the only unit of African American women who served in Europe during WWII.
Both the millage rate increase and the smoke free ordinance will require a second reading and a vote prior to being enacted.