Savannah considering new ways to fund fire department to remedy 2018 shortfall

(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The city of Savannah will begin mulling over new funding options next week because the preliminary 2018 budget has a $18 million revenue shortfall.

One of the city departments being re-evaluated is the Savannah Fire Department. The council is seeking alternative ways to pay for the department's $31.8 million budget.

WTOC's David Klugh has been dissecting the proposal and breaking down what it could mean for homeowners. If passed, no one escapes paying for fire service under this plan. It could be one of the most controversial ideas in City Manager Rob Hernandez's tenure so far. The city of Savannah, desperately searching for the best way to make up for an $18 million deficit, is proposing a fee on every property owner. That annual fee would buy you the fire protection you are already enjoying, but it would guarantee it will continue for decades to come. Before the next city council meeting, the debate over this proposed fire fee will reach every taxpayer in Savannah.

The idea is not that complicated, and nationwide, it's a funding mechanism already used by hundreds of communities, including Garden City, Bloomingdale, and Savannah's own Southside Fire Department. According to the presentation made to city council on Tuesday, Hernandez says the fire fee is the best way to close an $18 million hole in the budget. There are other ways, he says, such as raise property taxes or cut services, but to continue to fund Savannah Fire for the next 20 years, $74 million will have to be raised, and our current taxes won't cut it. So, here's how it works. The fees are broken down into single-family billing units of 1,700 square feet. If you own a home, your flat fee will be $360 a year, regardless of the size of your home. However, that fee can also be adjusted down for things like a sprinkler system. For commercial properties, the formula is also simple. Let's use a 10,000 square foot business as an example. The city takes the $10,000, divides by that single-family billing unit of 1,700 square feet, then multiplies the fee of $360. That business' fire fee would be about $2,100 a year. A medium-sized church, currently exempt from property taxes, would pay $2,500 a year. Also exempt from property taxes - SCAD - which owns dozens of buildings downtown and beyond. It would be cutting an annual fire fee check for $360,000. Local hospitals would be forking over more than $175,000 a year.

The city currently has nearly 6,000 properties that are enjoying the security of a fire department that will come running at the first sign of trouble, and whose owners pay nothing for that sense of security. That, the city says, is unfair to all the rest of us.

That's the real reason the city manager is co confident the council will support this fire fee. These fees are more equitable because everyone pays them, not just those who pay property taxes. Hernandez is also recommending a reduction in the property tax to help offset the fee. If the fee passes and you don't pay it, the city will likely see you in court.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions we're hearing so far:

  • 'Will the fee be based on a home's square footage and will renters have to pay the fee directly?' The fee is based on the median square footage of a home in Savannah which is 1,700 square feet, but all single-family homeowners will pay the same fee regardless of the size of the home. That fee to cover 100 percent of the cost of fire service will be no more than $370 a year. Renters will not pay directly. The property owner will pay. However, that will likely impact rents down the road.
  • 'Can the city use fire fee money for anything other than fire protection?' Absolutely not. In fact, what this fee is designed to do is to pull the cost of fire protection out of the general fund completely, so it no longer has to compete with other expenses. If there is more money collected than is needed, the city should be seeking a property tax decrease.
  • 'What happens if I refuse to pay the service?' Refusal to pay the fire fee would not result in the fire department pulling up and watching your house burn, and the state law does not allow the city to place a lien on the property for unpaid fire fees. The city's only option would be to take you to court.
  • 'Isn't a fire fee doubling taxing for the same thing since our property taxes already cover fire protection?' The city's argument is that property taxes don't cover fire and police protection. In fact, the two account for nearly 50 percent of the budget, yet property taxes only cover 30 percent.

Again, the fire fee as it is proposed would create a completely separate funding mechanism for all fire protection costs.

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