Savannah City Council works to restore potential budget cuts, but not all staffing issues are solved

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – After two days of a budget “retreat” the Savannah City Council may have come up with a direction for a new budget in 2018 that restores millions in cuts that were purposed recently in a budget draft from City Manager Rob Hernandez.

The first proposed budget called for layoffs of up to 200 employees, a hiring freeze and the elimination of a myriad of services or at the least, fewer of those services offered.

A budget plan agreed to in principle by the Council Friday (but not by offiical vote) would keep many of the programs and services that might have been cut back or eliminated all together.

It calls for a fire fee that would charge individual property owners $240 per year. However, those owners would be eligible for discounts that could lower that fee. In addition, there would also be a fund of about $400,000 set up to aid low income property owners in paying the fee. (Other kinds of property such as commercial property and even those properties that are exempt like churches would also be subject to the fee.) Originally, the individual fee might have been as much as $370 per year.

“That ($240 fee) will get us some extra funding,” said Alderman Julian Miller. “It will literally give people who were concerned about the price a little bit of relief, it will give us some extra money and we have some specific things we want to add back in.”

Some of those things that were slated to be “added back in” include a bit of a raise for city employees (more on that later), restoring funding for such things as cultural arts and investments in community events. The latest proposed budget also includes hiring 12 new police officers as part of a study related to a new, separate Savannah Police Department.

But one thing “not” added back in was restoring all of the estimated $3.1 million in cuts to the Savannah Fire Department. While the fire fee is designed to one day raise enough money to be a separate funding mechanism for the Savannah Fire Department, that would not happen initially. For example, the department’s budget this year is about $34 million. At best, the fee would raise about $20 million over a year’s time, if approved.

So while the fee may be the beginning of a new funding source for the fire department, it can’t save the department from budget repercussions this year. At first, 36 positions were supposed to be eliminated. 18 are vacant, but 18 are filled so that would have meant laying off those 18 firefighters. But now the expectation is those 18 firefighters will not lost their jobs. It’s expected the money to keep those firefighters will be available because other city employees will get a smaller raise, two percent instead of three percent. (The Council promises to visit the raise issue again in six months and says if the budget forecast is better, it will another one percent to paychecks in the second half of the year.)

Fire Chief Charles Middleton told me it was an “understatement” that he’s concerned about the outcome. He says he worries about safety for his crews if he can’t fill all of the vacancies he has currently.

Other issues:

** Hiring freeze remains in other city departments
** Planned improvements at the intersection of Liberty and Bull have been nixed
** Operation of the 9-1-1 Center (as a result of the separation of police departments) slated to cost $2.1 million is not funded (or at least not fully). City Manager Hernandez says there’s an expectation that Chatham County will assume the financial burden of operating the Center, but at this point that is not in writing.

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