Editor's Note: Smoke and mirrors of another election year

WE ARE now entering the Silly Season — election year for the City of Savannah — when nothing is quite as it seems, and when you should keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

For example, City officials are now boasting of a “tax cut” they are delivering just in time to become a part of their re-election campaigns.

But a closer look shows that it’s not what most of us might call an actual tax cut — including the state of Georgia, for one.

The expected downward adjustment of the City property tax millage rate from 13.4 to about 12.8 is actually a “rollback” as defined by state law.

In other words, because of increased tax revenue, the City is adopting a specially calculated formula to balance the millage rate with the increase in revenue.

If City Council doesn’t adopt the lower, rollback rate, they are bound by state law to call the former millage rate a tax hike, and hold a series of public hearings about it — which they really, really don’t want to have to do in an election year.

(Rollback legislation in state law is intended to keep local governments from instituting a so-called “back door tax hike,” i.e., keeping the tax rate the same but increasing assessed property values.)

The truth is that this election year “tax cut” will actually result in a higher tax rate than the City had just a year ago!

You’ll recall that in the wake of the failure of the Fire Fee to pass, City Council raised property taxes last summer to the current 13.4 mill rate.

The new rollback “tax cut” — assuming City Council passes it — will actually be a higher millage than the pre-Fire Fee rate of 12.48 from early 2018.

The finalized list of projects to be funded by the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) is another example of the need to be wary of smoke and mirrors.

The one-percent SPLOST is renewed by Chatham County voters every six years, and is up for renewal again this November, along with all seats on City Council.

That raises the stakes considerably, as the City of Savannah has become more or less totally dependent on SPLOST funds – its second-highest source of revenue after general City sales tax.

The political, pork-barrel nature of SPLOST is well-known, and was even a topic of frank discussion at last week’s City Council meeting.

The most obvious examples of this are the various community centers in each Alderman’s district. There looks to be five of these centers set to receive about $20 million in total funding – something a sitting City Council member can point to in their district as a reason to re-elect them.

To be fair, City Council wisely evaluated that this round of SPLOST might not pass at all unless more attention is paid to vital infrastructure issues — the actual reason behind SPLOST in the first place, back in the mid-1980s.

However, when you look at some of those expenditures, you also have to wonder.

For example, no one would begrudge low-lying, economically disadvantaged West Savannah getting more relief from their constant flooding concerns.

So at first glance, the planned $45 million for the first phase of improvements on the Springfield Canal would seem to be a worthy investment.

But consider that in practice the Springfield Canal improvement will likely have the most impact on assisting the new Westside Arena/Canal District plan — itself already a huge sponge soaking up SPLOST funds.

Several private developments in the area, including the one which will raze most of the historic Seaboard Freight Station, are probably prime beneficiaries of that $45 million in public money.

Another example: $10 million of SPLOST is set to go toward “City-Wide Blighted Property Acquisition and Redevelopment.”

This is essentially a euphemism for privately-held properties, mostly in West Savannah, which are to be purchased by the City through eminent domain.

Where are those properties?

You guessed it: in the area of the new Savannah Arena.

So while this round of SPLOST was supposedly not going to involve the Arena at all — a project which dominated the last round of SPLOST — we can see that, arguably, about a third of this round of SPLOST will also go to assist the Arena project.

Not all the news is bad of course, and credit should be given where it’s due.

City Council added a million dollars at the last minute to help fund the exciting “Tide to Town” urban trail system to enhance connectivity — sort of a mini version of the Atlanta Beltline, if you will.

They are kicking in $2.5 million for Grayson Stadium improvements, in the wake of the facility’s dramatically increased usage due to the runaway success of the Savannah Bananas.

Traffic calming has finally gotten on the City’s radar, as evidenced by the long-overdue but very welcome set of speed humps on 52nd Street between Bee and Waters, something residents have been begging for literally for decades.

In this round of SPLOST, one-way streets such as Whitaker and Drayton are set to be converted to two-way traffic.

At the core of the entire discussion of SPLOST, however, is the essential imbalance. The City of Savannah, by far the largest population base and largest economic driver in the county, by agreement only receives 39 percent of the total take from SPLOST over the six years.

Chatham County itself — not including the several other municipalities in it other than Savannah — receives about 28 percent of the take. Meanwhile, the county’s fastest growing municipality, Pooler, only gets 6.4 percent.

For SPLOST to continue to have majority support of the voters, it seems that the formula will have to be renegotiated in future installments. cs

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