IF YOU followed last week’s regular City Council meeting, you might have been relieved that Council voted down the $3 million purchase of the old Coastal Empire Fairgrounds on the Westside.
That controversial proposal popped up out of nowhere late in last year’s mayoral campaign, and seemed as brazenly politically motivated as it seemed half-baked.
A day later, however, any sense of relief vanished when Council reversed itself in an emergency meeting. In an 8-1 vote they opted to go ahead with the deal—at a price about a million dollars over Chatham County’s own tax appraisal!
Even aside from the egregious overpayment of taxpayer funds, the purchase makes less sense the more you look at it.
And Council’s 11th hour reversal does nothing to change the perception that, despite the change in mayors, this remains mostly a politically motivated expenditure.
It will probably come as little surprise to you that soon after initially agreeing to buy the Fairgrounds, the City found out there were environmental issues that would require costly mitigation over and above the purchase price.
At this point, given the City’s track record of slack-to-nonexistent due diligence—such as the infamous Waters Avenue parcel—that discovery barely even merits as news.
The stated purpose of the Fairgrounds purchase is for a site on which to build affordable housing stock, in an economically depressed area which without question could benefit from more investment.
However, the agency which would likely build the housing is the City’s “affordable housing partner,” the nonprofit Community Housing Services Agency, which is expected to buy some of the Fairgrounds parcel from the City.
CHSA oversees the construction of City-approved housing, in many cases marketing it and selling it almost exactly like any regular homebuilder, property management firm, or real estate agency would.
Somewhat oversimplified, CHSA is the City’s way of getting further into the real estate and property management business.
Some years CHSA brings in more revenue than it spends, but sometimes it spends more than it brings in—which if you’re following the money might be a clue why this particular purchase was pushed through despite so many obvious issues.
More to the point: CHSA’s track record is spotty. Literally spotty, as in the main contractor on its highly-touted Savannah Gardens project became the object of lawsuits about mold and water damage almost immediately after construction.
So of course, the same organization that helped sell moldy, substandard houses to low-income Savannahians is now going to help build houses on top of a former landfill with known environmental issues!
Hey, what’s the worst that can happen?
(Seriously: Where is the outrage over this? Where are Savannah’s “social justice” organizations when we really need them?)
At least on the surface, the Fairgrounds deal seems to be part & parcel—forgive the pun—of the City’s long-term focus on reinvigorating impoverished West Savannah.
That area has continued its decline even as downtown itself has become a Shangri La of investment opportunities, whether for politically well-connected hoteliers or for the short term vacation rental owners who will likely soon comprise a majority of residential owners downtown—if they’re not already.
Helping West Savannah is a noble and worthy goal, but as always the devil is in the details and there is a finite amount of money available.
The questions about the Fairgrounds purchase come at the same time serious questions are arising over the eventual cost of the Westside Arena project.
The arena alone, just the facility itself, is budgeted at $140 million.
(And if you believe that will be the final figure, I’ve got a wonderful bridge over the Savannah River to sell you; you can even rename it if you like.)
The arena project cost, however, explicitly doesn’t include improvements to the surrounding road and drainage network. Nor does it include the cost of relocating City facilities currently in that spot, probably to a brand-new facility which will cost many millions of currently unbudgeted dollars.
Here’s the real kicker:
All this is going on as the entire City budget is feeling the downstream effects of the ongoing, unfolding debacle over water and utility bills.
Currently, the City is running at least $15 million behind in revenue because of the six-month gap in billing, which the City chalks up to a longer-than-expected changeover in billing software.
The flawed idea that the City would be able to collect on unbilled water and utility services to people who relocated during that half-year only added to the problem.
(Keep in mind: Even when the changeover is done, you still won’t be able to pay your water bill online! Incredible. How are these people still employed?)
It’s very telling that in discussing the water bill fiasco as its true costs became clear, Mayor Eddie DeLoach said, “I don’t want to be the captain of the Titanic.”
As in, this is just the tip of the iceberg that sinks the ship.
These are the budget problems we know about. In and of themselves, each one isn’t a budget-buster. But the cumulative effect is potentially very damaging in the long term.
In any case it seems clear there is a growing financial rot at the core of the City of Savannah government, and I’m not just talking about moldy drywall.
Despite the negative things I and others have written about our government, for decades Savannah has been known as largely an astute, frugal manager of taxpayer funds in comparison with many other municipalities, with a strong credit rating and an overall fiscally sound and conservative approach.
Even a cursory look at the current management of the City budget shows that those days might be coming to an end.
The search for a new City Manager, coming to a close now, offers a rare second chance to set the ship right.
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