In what was probably one of the most anticipated City Council meetings of the year, our elected officials debated and voted on two of the most controversial issues of 2010 - the smoke free ordinance and a small increase in the millage rate.
If you happen to see a re-broadcast on the city government channel, this is a meeting worth watching, because there was no shortage of fireworks. Here are the highlights.
Mind the gap
The property tax increase became the centerpiece of a heated exchange in the City Council meeting on August 12, and it would ignite some passionate debate at last week's meeting as well.
When it came down to it, the increase passed by a vote of 6-3 with Jeff Felser, Mary Ellen Sprague and Clifton Jones voting against it. When it came time to vote, the board showing ‘yea' and ‘nay' votes for each Council member wasn't turned on, or wouldn't light up, so a vote was taken by raising hands.
Felser was the most vocal in opposing the measure, citing the shaky economy and the lack of effort to find other possible savings before raising taxes.
"Even when this passes, you're only buying four months," Felser said. "We're simply putting a band-aid on a gash that's opening."
Jones argued that raising taxes was the wrong thing to do considering how much time is spent discussing poverty in the city. He also raised the point that the budget shortfall could be paid for using another reserve fund the city held besides the Sales Tax Stabilization Fund.
The mayor offered re-assurance that with a focused look at the 2011 budget, the millage rate could return to 12.5 next year.
Due to declining sales and property tax revenue, the City was forced to find a way to close the $3.2 million gap in the current year's budget. The proposal set forth by Acting City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney involved a combination of measures, including a $1.2 million withdrawal from the Sales Tax Stabilization Fund and .5 mill increase in the millage rate, from 12.5 to 13.
"Combining these strategies will allow us to continue our services," said Small-Toney.
Quitting for New Year's
After several heated public meetings, and countless phone calls, emails and letters from people on both sides of the issue, council passed an amended version of the smoke free ordinance by a vote of 7-2. The new rule, which will end the centuries' old tradition of smoking in Savannah's bars, will take effect on January 1, 2011.
Clifton Jones and Mary Osborne voted against the ordinance.
Osborne took a vocal stance against the ordinance, saying it was "restricting freedom of choice."
Jones added, "I know this will pass, but I hope it doesn't put us in a position to lose revenue."
In one of the most poignant comments of the afternoon, Tony Thomas said that the fervor of debate and level of effort that went into the smoking ordinance pointed out "a basic problem in our society."
"There's never been as much energy put to stopping poverty as their has been about cigarettes in bars," said Thomas.
There were several amendments made to the ordinance before the final vote. Business owners will be allowed to define "reasonable distance" when the recommended 10-foot distance requirement is not possible.
The effective date was pushed back to New Year's day, after both 30 and 90 days were deemed too abrupt.
Also, an exemption was carved out for some restaurants with outdoor seating. Any restaurant with outdoor seating equaling 50 percent of indoor seating can offer 20 percent of outdoor seating as a smoking section.
The Healthy Savannah Initiative has gotten a $25,000 grant from the Georgia Department of Community Health to help businesses with signage and fliers about the ordinance.