The Savannah City Council on Thursday moved a bit closer to implementing a special fire fee in the city. It’s not official though. City Manager Rob Hernandez is proposing the fee, saying it would be a more permanent and reliable funding source for the department in the next decade as compared to the general fund which is mainly made up of property taxes and sales taxes along with some other forms of funding.
This year, the city is expected to have a budget shortfall of about $18 million. The fire department will need about $32 million to operate this year but that figure is expected to increase to about $49 million over the next decade, fueled in part by the need for new fire stations as well as the increased demand on fire personnel to respond not only to a fire but other kinds of emergency, including an opioid overdose.
The fire fee might be as much as $370 for some homeowners although a number of alderman say that should be scaled back. Hernandez does indicate that up to ten percent of all the property in Savannah is tax exempt and says that seems unfair since firefighters would respond to fires on all those properties. If a fee is implemented, the initial plan being discussed would apply it to all property, including those that are tax exempt. Hernandez does say if the fee is implemented he would propose lowering the mill levy with the idea that homeowners would pay the fee but also lower property taxes and basically come out even. Alderman Van Johnson wasn’t convinced saying the fire tax in other places has simply turned out to be regressive and has harmed those who can least afford it.
Alderman Tony Thomas has proposed the consideration of a senior citizens discount, saying the fee could hurt many on fixed incomes. The council agreed to consider that.
Meanwhile, Mayor Eddie Deloach says the fee seems like the best idea available to them at this point. Deloach says without it, “the mill levy would need to be raised.”