Savannah City Council grapples with budget issues

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Members of the Savannah City Council spent all day Wednesday grappling with how to balance the budget for 2018. A projected budget includes about $12.7 million in cuts, which include eliminating or cutting back on a myriad of city services as well as staff reductions, pay freezes and even the consideration of a four day week for city workers.

City Manager Rob Hernandez has proposed a “bare bones” budget which he says is just a roadmap for council members. The preliminary budget includes a possible shortfall of about $12.7 million dollars and remedies to deal with it include reductions in staff.

Here are just some of the things the proposed budget would do:

** Eliminate cost of living increases
** Eliminate longevity benefits
** Reduce salaries
** Consider a four day work week
** Reduce security services at city facilities
** Reduce service hours
** Close and consolidate some community centers and swimming pools

The proposed budget also calls for the elimination of more than 200 positions, many of them civilian positions related to the separation of police departments. However, 20 of those positions would be at the fire department. The fire department is facing a cut of $3.1 million dollars and we’re told services would definitely be affected if the monies are not restored. The cuts would mean not only the elimination of staff but the elimination of Engine 16 which serves the downtown area along with elimination of an engine company (yet to be determined) elimination of two fire inspectors as well as the fireboat.

Hernandez says there is growing pressure on the General Fund and that most people who pay property taxes may assume the General Fund pays for all city services. But Hernandez said in reality, it pays for less than half of all services provided and doesn’t cover all public safety costs in terms of police and fire.

Hernandez says there are a number of options the council can consider including implementation of the proposed fire fee which would provide a new and separate funding mechanism for fire services.

Mayor Eddie Deloach says he favors that fee in some form because it means “ensuring future funding for fire services.”

Alderman Van Johnson said he favors the fee “in concept” but is concerned about the timing, i.e. telling people January 1st that the fee is being imposed in 2018.

Wednesday afternoon, the council was presented with several scenarios regarding the cost that homeowners could pay. It might be as much as $370 per year. But a lower cost of about $220 to $240 dollars was also discussed. (That would not raise as much money ultimately for the department but it was tentatively discussed as being enough to fund services and propel the department forward.)

Hernandez indicated that on the projected revenue side – 2018 will include $10 million less as a result of no payment from Chatham County for the combined police department.

Officials have indicated that down the road the separation of police departments is expected to save the city money but at least additionally, there are millions in costs including possibly running the 911 Center (although Chatham County has indicated verbally it wants to take over the operation). There is also a cost of up to $650,000 for new police vehicles.

One budget option that Hernandez has presented for council’s consideration includes hiring more officers for the new Savannah Police Department. That option would increase the bottom line amount of the budget and funding mechanisms for those costs have yet to be approved. That option includes hiring possibly 22 more officers (12 positions to be paid for from normal funding sources and 10 from parking revenues.)

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