Public funding for cultural, social services back on the table in Savannah

(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
Picnic in the park is on the list of cultural services (Source: WTOC)
Picnic in the park is on the list of cultural services (Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The large crowd at last week's council meeting got their point across. The people filled the council chambers from places like the Telfair Museum and Coastal Children's Advocacy Center begging for funding.

The city manager cut that funding to cultural and social services in the first proposed budget.

Alderman Van Johnson said he and his colleagues heard their voices.

"We have to find ways, find money to be able to do both," said Johnson.

The city manager and budget director on Friday proposed options to the council and mayor. Four of those options would fund these services the same as they were funded last year. No new organizations would get money in 2017. In addition, no organization would get more money.

"Public safety is important. Law enforcement is important, but also those aesthetic things, those cultural things, those basic need things that make Savannah the beautiful city that she is, I think those need to stay," said Johnson.

For places like the Telfair Museum or the Savannah Black Heritage Festival, the potential drop in funding hit at a bad time. They already set their 2017 budgets.

They said the new developments in next year's budget are big for them.

"We really feel strongly that people we're serving and art in our culture, in our community is really critical," said Molly Taylor, director of development with the Telfair Museums.

Three of the proposals involve moving around city money in the general fund or reserve fund to make up for the loss. The fourth—and likely least popular—places the burden on the taxpayer.

The first eliminates an additional 20 percent Freeport Inventory Tax Exemption. This exempts taxes on certain goods that are manufactured or stored here in Savannah.

This would restore around $420,000 in General Fund Revenue. There is a 20 percent Tax Exemption that was already implemented this year. This would just eliminate the proposed additional exemption.

The next option is increasing the millage rate on property taxes in the city. Depending on the rate increase, this would not only restore the funding to arts and social services but will also eliminate the $1.8 million that is already planned to be taken from city reserves.

The increase could be between .5 and 1 mills. That would generate anywhere from $2.3 to $4.7 million in extra revenue, but it would cost property owners anywhere from $28 to $57 on average extra annually in taxes.

The third option would be to eliminate three new positions proposed to enhance developmental services, along with reducing funding for initiatives in the city manager's office.

Holding off on the hires would put business development enhancements on hold, and slashing funding would potentially affect initiatives such as strategic planning, public safety cameras, re-branding initiatives and much more.

The final option would be to dip further into city reserves. Right now, the proposed budget uses $1.8 million in reserve money.

In order to restore funding to arts and social services to their levels from 2016, an additional $400,000 would have to be taken out.

The downside: This could affect the city's favorable bond rating leading to higher borrowing costs for the city.

Alderman Johnson said there is another way to get money that they're looking at now.

"We're also asking for our municipalities, people in the other municipalities, that also benefit from these services, for them to also pay in to those things," said Johnson.

"The city council saying that they are willing to reinstate this means that culture is important to the quality of life for the city of Savannah and that is fantastic," said Taylor.

The council will vote on the final budget at next Thursday's meeting. If other cities—like Pooler and Port Wentworth—decide to help fund these services, we don't know when that would start.

You can view the full document below from the City of Savannah outlining the five budget options:

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