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Editor's Note: Inside Savannah’s sausage factory

Jim Morekis Dec 6, 2017 1:00 AM

ONE OF the oldest sayings in politics is that passing laws and budgets is like making sausage– you might be better off not knowing how it’s done.

Last week the nation was focused on the shambolic passage of a sweeping yet chaotic and patchwork tax bill, which not even members of the Senate fully understood before voting on it.

Also last week, Savannah citizens — or the ones paying attention anyway — were focused on the City Council budget retreat, wherein an extremely controversial proposed 2018 budget was hashed out in more detail.

First the good news:

• The City’s effort was a bit more transparent and aboveboard than that of the U.S. Congress going on at the same time. Citizens should take heart that, while there is still plenty to criticize in the City budget proposal, at least you can watch that sausage being made if that’s your thing.

• The Arts and Social Services budgets — both of which were on the chopping block — were restored to their current, 2017 levels. While the proposed budget still has a lot of problematic issues, that very hot-button issue is now apparently off the table.

• There is some indication that City Manager Rob Hernandez was overly conservative in his projections. In other words, there might be a surplus in revenue collection. Does that mean you’ll be getting a refund check for your tax money? No chance of course, absolutely zero, but it might mean that things aren’t quite as bad as we thought they were.

Other than that, not only are there still some concerning items, there was one concerning new item that came up suddenly: A proposal for the City to partner with Savannah/Chatham County Public Schools on a new program for 3-5 year olds, to the tune of about $2 million in previously unbudgeted City funding.

How new is the item? School Board President Jolene Byrne said she was taken completely by surprise by not only the announcement of the new program, but by the apparent commitment of $5 million of funding from the school district toward it.

Byrne immediately wrote to Mayor Eddie DeLoach:

“The City’s budget workshop discussions were the first I have heard of such an initiative. It has not been discussed with me by you, the Superintendent, your City Manager, or anyone else involved in this plan. I cannot find any record of a discussion of this financial collaboration in our Budget Committee records. Before the City votes to set aside such a significant amount of money, I believe it is important for you to understand that as of today we have no plans to enter into such a partnership,” she wrote.

“This does not mean that the Board is opposed to such an initiative. Only that we are unaware of it and unprepared at this juncture to fund it. Five million dollars is a significant amount of taxpayer money, an amount that at the current moment is not available in the SCCPSS budget,” Byrne wrote the Mayor.

(Hopefully we’ll eventually be able to discuss whether it’s a good idea for local public schools to essentially duplicate the state’s Pre-K program when they already have plenty of existing areas in dire need of improvement. But, another column for another day.)

Adding a timely jab, Byrne told the Mayor that the Board might be willing to participate in such a program, but the proposed new Fire Fee in the City budget probably means they can’t afford to.

Ah, the Fire Fee. That remains the most controversial part of the budget, and much like our new tax bill, also seems to be beyond most people’s understanding.

To recap, the Fire Fee is intended to move the funding mechanism for fire rescue out of the City’s general fund. As I understand it, the Fire Fee will be assessed much like a utility bill, on every structure whether owned by the private sector, the public sector, a non-profit, a school, a church, a hospital – basically anything that can burn down.

(I hear a lot of people asking how the City can “tax a nonprofit.” They can’t — that’s exactly why it’s a fee and not a tax.)

The problem with the Fire Fee is that by the time it goes through the sausage grinder, it will make little sense and be less effective than it is envisioned.

For example, to secure votes on Council, some low-income assistance for the Fire Fee had to be agreed upon, with a half-million dollar fund set aside for the purpose.

I’m all for helping low-income folks, but in this case such an assistance fund would seem to undercut the main purpose of the fee: to raise money for fire and emergency services in an equitable fashion across the board.

Not only that, but to sweeten the deal the City will slightly roll back property taxes to help mitigate the impact of the Fire Fee.

That’s good for homeowners, since they pay the bulk of local property tax but are less than 50 percent of local heads of household (most of whom rent).

But doesn’t that undercut the original concept?

Why have a Fire Fee if it literally adds more line items to implement?

Another problem is the issue of potential carve-outs for various entities which might take issue and decide to fight it.

For example, if you believe SCAD will end up paying full freight on the Fire Fee for its entire real estate portfolio, I have a bridge over the Savannah River to sell you. You can even change the name if you want!

But the Fire Fee makes sense on paper, of course, which is why the City Manager and City Council will make it happen.

The numbers will match up, the budget will balance, and they’ll sell it as a win/win.

I’m still not sure it passes the smell test, however, and I am sure I’m not alone in thinking that way.

In any case — speaking of seeing the sausage being made — the first reading of the new-new City budget for 2018 comes before Council this Thursday, with a subsequent reading on Dec. 21.

Hopefully we won’t get a lump of coal in our stocking this Christmas.

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