It had all the elements of a great Agatha Christie mystery.
A group of people sitting around a large table, wide-eyed and open-mouthed as an angry accuser says he knows one of them has done a dastardly deed. But which one?
However, the scene wasn’t a stately English manor house, it was the media room of Savannah City Hall. And Otis Johnson wasn’t Inspector Clousseau, he was one angry mayor.
The mayor waited until the end of the council’s workshop to pounce. "In the paper this morning, there’s an editorial that references a memo that I only sent to council members and to the city manager," he said. "I did that so we could have a discussion and resolve the issue.
"Yesterday, I received a call from an editorial writer about a memo that one of the nine people I sent this memo to gave to them, or at least they had a telephone discussion," Johnson said. "If we’re going to have enmity, where there are no rules to the game, let me know so I can play the game.
"If every memo I send out goes to the newspaper before we can discuss it, let me know so I can do the same thing," he said. "I want to know from this council, what are the rules of the game so I can play by the rules, or let us know there are no rules."
In the memo, Johnson asked council members to consider covering a $9,612 deficit from the 2009 Black Heritage Festival, which occurred because projected donations were down this year. The city allocated $150,000 to this year’s festival, and SSU raised an addition $52,000 in donations, but it wasn’t enough.
Johnson was obviously angry about the situation, especially after the Savannah Morning News printed an editorial chastising him and urging him not to act on the situation. "I am offended by this because all I was doing was informing the council of a situation that came to me," he said. "I had made no decision on it, but I wanted to discuss it.
"We have people who love to go to the media and whatever they think they’re going to gain by doing that, I want to warn them," Johnson said, "If you play with snakes, you’re going to get bit. Be aware the media will come back and bite you, too.
"I’ve been bitten several times," he said. "I’m building up immunity to it, but I’m very offended."
How offended? "I’m doing this in public because (the memo) was done in public," Johnson said.
Although several aldermen immediately began denying they leaked the memo, Johnson told them to save their breath. "I don’t want to know who did it," he said. "I can either play fair if the game is fair or I can play dirty if the game is going to be dirty, but I need to know. Either we are going to have respect for each other and the community and listen to each other and sit down and make decisions before going to the press, or it’s going to be open season."
Ironically, since Johnson issued the memo on March 20, the situation has been correcting itself. Donations for the festival are still coming in, and the deficit was already down to $3,000 at the time of the council meeting.
Johnson said he had spoken with festival organizer Shirley James about the matter. "She informed me that within the next 10 days, this whole issue is going to be resolved, but somebody was so anxious to make an issue of it, they couldn’t wait for the discussion we would have had today," he said.
Council members were quick to agree with Johnson. "Mr. Mayor, I consider it a very unprofessional thing for anyone (to do this) when you send a memo to us asking for a reply, which means there is going to be a pending discussion," Alderwoman Mary Osborne said.
"This issue was moot before it ever came to the council," Alderman Jeff Felser said.
Alderwoman Edna Jackson said she learned about the editorial from an early morning phone call from an angry resident. "She said, ‘Y’all aren’t getting together on this stuff? Why is this in the paper?’" Jackson said.
Alderman Clifton Jones told the mayor he should expect such incidents. "This isn’t the first time that we’ve had issues like this," he said. "You should expect that. Someone from the Morning News called me about this. I do know it happens."
"Clifton hit the nail on the head," Alderman Van Johnson said. "This not the first time. I didn’t know about this until Edna called me at 4:30 this morning. Obviously, the reality is our ability to respectfully conduct business as a unit is compromised when this occurs."
The mayor said he mentioned the memo publically because he wanted his words to be televised. "It could have only come from this council," Johnson said.
"I don’t want to know who it is," he said. "My opinion of that person will take a nosedive. I just want to know if it will continue. Someone has an agenda other than this."
Assistant City Manager Chris Morrill told the council there could be a $9 million shortfall in the budget by the end of the 2009. However, with belt-tightening, the city could maintain staff and services, and is still better off than most cities in the country because of prudent planning and budgeting, he said.
"You can tell we have a lot of financial challenges because you’re see me more than you usually do," he told the council.
City sales tax revenues took a big jump in 2006, but have continued to decline since then. Funding from sales tax could be below target $740,000 by the end of the year.
Hotel/motel taxes are on the decline for the first time since 2007, but so far are just a little off target. "We have more hotels coming online, but their rate of being full has dropped significantly," Morrill said, adding that fund could be $1.2 million under the targeted budget by the end of year.
Business tax collections are on target, and the preservation tax fee is actually up. "Anecdotally, it seems like the streets are busy," Morrill says.
Auto rental tax revenue is on target for now, but could drop. "Most is collected at the airport, and the airport is saying there are less boardings," Morrill said.
The steepest decline by far is in building inspection fees, which is already $169,113 down from target, even though water and sewer tap-in fees are slightly up. "That’s a good sign because we’re seeing some increased activity here, so we need to watch that," Morrill said.
Recorder’s court fines have increased by about $142,148. But interest on the general fund is down considerably and could be $1.7 percent under budget by the end of the year.
It is on the expenditure side that the city can make progress, and so far, the news is good, Morrill says. By holding 330 staff vacancies, the city’s "position bank" has generated $1.6 million in savings year-to-date. "That will become important because rather than lay off, we want to move vacancies around," Morrill said.
Electricity expenditures are $200,000 under target, while gasoline and diesel expenditures are down almost $300,000 because of lower prices and conservation.
The state legislature is adding to the city’s budget challenges, Morrill said, by considering bills that would cost taxpayers while lowering city revenue. But overall, he is confident the city can bring expenditures down and end the year in balance. "The continued focus must be on long-term efficiency and prioritizing services," he said.
There currently are city-wide priorities and values teams, made up of city employees, who are looking at using efficiency so the city can continue providing services. About 70 employees are involved in the teams, and they’ve been focusing on various topics.
The teams’ findings will be presented at a Town Hall meeting in April. "This is a paradigm shift," the mayor said. "I think the public’s response will be overwhelmingly positive."
Morrill said an effort was made to get "big thinkers, analytical types" for the teams. "We really tried to be diverse," he said. "When you put somebody who works in Streets on the neighborhood team, it gives you a whole new perspective.
"The discussions in these have just been phenomenal," Morrill said, as he recommended that the council hold a half-day workshop to discuss the findings. "In the end, you’re the final decision makers."
Brown said the teams’ goal is to reduce expenditures by cutting $10-$15 million through prioritization. "It would be great if we could do that by cutting fuel and electricity," he said. "We’ve held the budget as far as increases. Now we’re lowering fuel, overtime and other things. Up next, we can make a long-term investment in energy savings."
"Hopefully, we can change this discussion from what to cut to what do we fund," Morrill said. "It’s good to discuss it rather than just say, ‘Here’s a list of what we’re going to cut."
City Manager Michael Brown is hopeful the city can still receive federal stimulus grant money for the President Street/Truman Parkway project, which would raise the roadbed and create an overpass at the rail crossing. The Georgia Department of Transportation decided not to fund the city’s most-needed project in this round of stimulus funding, but Brown is hopeful the city will get funding in the second round, which will be decided in May.
The route in question is a hurricane evacuation route that is heavily used by commuters. The council made it the top priority because of safety issues.
"A week ago Friday, two or three of us met with the chairman of DOT in Augusta," Brown said. "They didn’t give us money, but the chairman acknowledged we don’t have the full representation (on the DOT board) we should have," he said.
As a result, the chairman is going to take responsibility for the city’s application. "We’re not giving up on that one," Brown said.
"This is going to be critical because every dollar we get from the stimulus will help our capital budget," he said. "Rather than take over $700 million and make a single allocation, they’re doing it in a two-tier process. We can try now and again later."
During its regular session, the council approved a resolution of support for the application. Brown said such support is essential when applying for grant funding and should help the city in its effort to get approval.
Alderman Tony Thomas said the matter of underage drinking in the city needs to be addressed, especially in the wake of a 10=day suspension of the liquor license at Wild Wings Cafe.
Thomas said owners and staff of restaurants and bars are punished severely after infractions, resulting in the loss of thousands of dollars, while the actual underage drinkers get a fine of just $250-$350. "Then they just walk away," he said.
What Thomas is proposing is a graduated approach to the problem. For first offenses, he said the fine should be at least $500, the person should serve a year’s probation and do community service.
"If the person is caught again, there needs to be a greater fine, possible jail time, community service and the state has a provision for the loss of their (driver’s) license," Thomas said. "There are a lot of bars that are fortunate because everyone is not getting caught yet. What are we doing to deter kids from going in there?
"People act like they can walk away while 150 employees will suffer from the consequences," he said. "We need to establish a task force to work with hospitality as a whole, bring in the colleges, bring in the military, to address these issues to change ordinances that are outdated."
Thomas then said he thinks bartenders and servers should be registered with the city.
Alderman Van Johnson agreed, saying underage patrons go in bars knowingly intending to break the law.
Alderman Jeff Felser said it seems to be a consensus of the council that a registry be established. The city manager was asked to delegate staff to come back in 90 days with recommendations.
After a public hearing and much deliberation, the council approved a liquor license application submitted by Denise White Pipkin, owner of Sweet Melissa’s. Members had been concerned about traffic at the business, which is located at 35 Whitaker St., but Brown pointed out that pedestrian issues aren’t exclusive to Sweet Melissa’s, which is across the street from Lady and Sons.
The council also was concerned about the serving of alcohol at what is essentially a take-out restaurant, but White assured the council she has no intent to operate a bar or compete with other bars. Alcohol will be served only with food.
Alderman Johnson noted that photos of the council members and their phone numbers were posted at the restaurant to encourage the public to support Sweet Melissa’s in its efforts to obtain a liquor license. "If you’re going to have our faces up there, at least have them smiling," he said.
Sweet Melissa’s gets liquor license with strings attached
Should bartenders and servers be registered?
No stimulus money for President Street/Truman Parkway - yet