YOU MIGHT be tired of reading about the Fire Fee. I’d prefer to be writing about other things as well.
But the Fire Fee not only continues to become more controversial as more details about it become known, but I now believe it will be the number one issue in the 2019 City of Savannah elections, barring some unforeseen major development.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even a political scientist, to figure this out. But we now have proof at City Council.
The last two meetings have featured attempts by opponents of the Fire Fee to make it an overarching issue.
Indeed, a dust-up at the most recent meeting revealed intense fault lines.
Alderman Tony Thomas’s motions, one to repeal the Fire Fee entirely and another to use half the recently announced surplus to further discount it, both failed in 6-3 votes.
Not even the use of what in Savannah counts as the nuclear option — a group of church pastors speaking out against the Fire Fee — swayed the voting.
But the debate had the desired effect of forcing Mayor Eddie DeLoach and City Manager Rob Hernandez to defend the Fire Fee yet again, thus spending more political capital on the unpopular measure.
Three City Council members have been firm opponents of the Fire Fee, at least recently anyway: Tony Thomas, Van Johnson, and Estella Shabazz.
It probably won’t surprise you that all three predate the DeLoach administration.
(If you’re asking yourself how do Thomas and Johnson always seem to avoid blame for the City’s problems when they’ve been part of the system longer than anyone else up there, you’ve answered your own question: Both men are skilled politicians, each in his own very different way. That skill is largely how they keep getting a pass — and keep getting reelected.)
The issue of the Fire Fee being passed by Council not long before news broke of an unexpected and sizable surplus seems to be what is driving the outrage and feeling of betrayal on the part of citizens.
While I like to believe that everyone is up to speed on local issues from paying attention to me and to the rest of the local media, the truth is that many residents don’t follow the news at all, and still have no real idea what the Fire Fee is about.
For thousands of voters in the City, their first inkling of the Fire Fee will be when they see it on their property tax bill. And a whole new round of outrage will ensue.
For Mayor DeLoach and the new members of Council elected with him — Carol Bell, Brian Foster, Julian Miller, and Bill Durrence — the most real and present electoral danger has to do with where the votes come from.
Mayor DeLoach’s success in 2015 was largely due to very high turnout in District 4, the area south of Victory Drive including Ardsley Park, which also elected Julian Miller as its representative in a blowout.
DeLoach and Miller are arguably the Council members most supportive of the Fire Fee.
And who are some of the voters now most upset by the Fire Fee? You guessed it.
However, the fact that Ardsley Park is mad about a new tax or fee is as surprising as seeing the question “Gunshots or Fireworks?” on the neighborhood chat page.
What is more noteworthy is that opposition to the Fire Fee is perhaps most intense in lower-income areas of Savannah, where the impact of the Fire Fee will be the most disproportionate.
Alderwoman Shabazz, whose District 5 is arguably the City’s most challenged economically, had a crowd of 400 residents come to the Liberty City Community Center to vent about the Fire Fee and hear about possible discounts.
If that doesn’t sound like a lot of people, keep in mind that Shabazz received 1435 votes in her last election throughout the entire district. Four hundred motivated voters in Savannah can be a game-changing number.
Based on square footage rather than property value, the Fire Fee will be felt more by a person on a fixed or low income.
In addition, as first reported in this space nearly six months ago, because the Fire Fee was coupled with a millage rollback, any property assessed at $640,000 or higher will actually get a net tax break — thus further dividing Savannah along income and racial lines.
City Manager Rob Hernandez, the main force behind the Fire Fee, admitted last week that the Fire Fee is a regressive form of raising revenue, but argued that sales taxes and property taxes are even more regressive (in the latter case that would seem to be technically inaccurate).
In an email response to a citizen concerned about the disproportionate impact of the Fee on the less affluent, Hernandez countered that property value is irrelevant to its entire purpose:
“The City provides the same amount of response (service) to a $100,000 home as it does to a $500,000 home. With regard to fire protection, we do not adjust our response based on property value because a $100,000 home (and its occupants) are as equally important as a $500,000 one,” Hernandez wrote in an email response to a the homeowner.
“Trust me when I say that this was not an easy decision for staff or City Council to make. We were all faced with the decision to reduce services, raise taxes, or raise money through other means such as a fire fee. None of these three options were easy ones to take on and without controversy and without pain. That’s the reality,” Hernandez concluded.
Hernandez was hired in 2016 specifically to set the City’s finances in order. You could certainly make the case that he’s off to a solid start in that direction, though not every move has been popular.
In most places the news of a $10 million surplus would be considered a net positive, rather than the fiasco most of Savannah seems to consider it.
But speaking of reality: Another reality is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
And the public’s burning anger at the Fire Fee threatens to bring more sweeping change to City Council in the next election.
It’s looking like that conflagration will be a hard one to extinguish.