THE Georgia Ports Authority announced last week that in 2017 the Port of Savannah broke yet another record for shipping volume: over 4 million 20-foot equivalent container units, the Port’s highest annual volume ever.
If the City of Savannah were able to charge an impact fee of one dollar for each one of those containers, that would have funded one of the following things:
• The 117 new police cars we are purchasing with change to spare.
• The purchase of the Coastal Empire Fairgrounds with change to spare.
• Quadruple the amount of the arts and social services budgets originally put on the chopping block in the 2018 budget.
• About half the cost of funding the de-merger of the police department.
• About a third of the budget shortfall which resulted in the new Fire Fee.
We could go on and on. Add some imaginary line items of your own, just for fun.
A dollar per unit is too much? How about a dime? Anything’s more than we’re getting right now.
The point of such a fee would be not to bail out local government from its own malfeasance, but to prompt what is usually called the major economic driver of the area to help mitigiate some of its impact on our environment and other quality of life issues, like traffic and pollution.
Sound silly? Maybe it is.
But who predicted that we’d one day be charged a Fire Fee to make up for a budget shortfall? Anyone?
Which is more fair? A pittance of a fee on the massive Port of Savannah, fastest-growing in North America? Or a regressive tax like the Fire Fee, which impacts the disadvantaged more than anyone else?
Many ports, most privately owned, routinely levy per-container surcharges on traffic, and indeed, all kinds of fees and surcharges and the like.
It’s hardly a revolutionary or groundbreaking proposal — though if you as much as mention it in Savannah you’re usually met with stunned glances, nervous coughs, and maybe even a dropped coffee mug like in the movies.
I do understand that realistically such a fee here would be next to impossible. Then again, the Fire Fee was probably thought unimaginable not long ago, too.
I do, however, think that an adult debate of what such a fee would look like is important for broadening the discussion.
While such an impact fee is highly unlikely to happen at the Port of Savannah, for a variety of reasons, that’s not due to the reasons you’re usually told.
People who insist that the Port be allowed to extract massive and growing profits unimpeded for the benefit of various multinationals and state-level lobbying interests, while Savannah bears the brunt of the environmental and traffic costs, have various defenses.
They say the Port is owned and operated by the state of Georgia, and hence cannot be regulated by a county or city.
Basically true. But Chatham County and various municipalities and utilities and private entities do control many of the streets and much of the attendant infrastructure which make the activities of the Port possible in the first place.
They say most of the land in and around the Port isn’t even in Savannah city limits.
Also true. However, there is very serious talk of a consolidation referendum which has the potential of changing all that.
If city/county government consolidated (read more in Orlando Montoya’s piece this issue), the city would be the county and vice versa, making the point moot.
As for the significant environmental damage caused by the Port, much of that is to land owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal government can and does supersede state governments in areas involving interstate commerce as a matter of constitutional law.
So... so much for all those arguments.
Another argument against any kind of local impact fee on the Port of Savannah goes like this:
“We can’t just let governments tell commercial interests they must pay communities in order to do business there. That’s not government’s job.”
It kind of is, and we just did.
We do it all the time.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Savannah City Council directly told grocery store representatives – to their faces and in so many words – that they must:
A) Consider the taking of their shopping carts from store premises as a necessary cost of doing business in Savannah; and
B) They must pay a fine to the City for restitution if their shopping carts are found to cause neighborhood blight.
Again, this isn’t my opinion or my interpretation. This is directly what the new City ordinance addresses, and what has been said in numerous public forums.
How about liquor licenses? Businesses pay government for those, and local governments are constantly debating their impact on quality of life. Savannah is currently in the midst of a very contentious series of debates over just this issue.
The difference of course is that a bar or restaurant or retail outlet is easy pickings, and the Port is not.
The bottom-line truth of the matter is that the Port of Savannah is just too sacred a cow.
Indeed, in a town with more than its share of sacred cows, the Port of Savannah might be the most sanctified of bovines.
That in a nutshell is the real reason we don’t ask the Port to pay more back into the local community which enables its record-breaking success year after year.
They’re untouchable, and you’re not.
Contrast that with how we treat small business. Witness the frequent ordeal of just about any entrepreneur here being forced to scrape and plead before City Council just to have their already-guaranteed private property rights respected, much less actually encouraged or supported.
Government crushes the little guy here all the time, as a matter of course. (Ask a local bar owner how much more their liquor license will cost this year, but make sure you take a couple steps back.)
Since regulating is, after all, what governments do, maybe it’s time for them to step their game up and pick on someone their own size for a change. And maybe do us all a favor.