Savannah City Council instructs staff to move forward with new rate for proposed fire fee

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Savannah City Council gave the green light for staff to move forward with implementing a fire fee at 70 percent of the original fee during day two of the budget retreat Friday.

"The action that they're contemplating taking on Dec. 7 brings stability to our funding and our spending plan for the next five years, and that's important. That's one of the reasons we wanted to have this budget workshop. It's one of the reasons we were considering a fire fee because we needed something to stabilize our revenues and expenditures over the storm-term or the long-term," said Savannah City Manager, Rob Hernandez.

At a 70 percent rate, the fire fee will on average cost single-family homes $240 a year. That feel will eliminate the imbalance in the preliminary budget, raking in nearly $14 million. That will bring back nearly $5.5 million in services cut in the preliminary budget, and add more than $7 million in service enhancements. For low-income families, a hardship fund of $400,000 will be set aside for those who qualify.

"If they fill out the forms and send them in, they'll be able to get that money and take some of the pressure off them, and we're talking $20 a month, but that $20 a month is a lot for some people," Hernandez said.

Numbers worked into the funding assignments Friday are still a working draft, and will likely be changed several more times before the actual budget is voted on. The first reading of the proposed 2018 budget will be Dec. 7. The final reading and approval will be on Dec. 21.

The plan also calls for the millage rate to be dropped by one point, from 12.48 to 11.48. This option is expected to free up around $13 million from the city's general fund needed to disseminate among other programs within Savannah.

What are the facts, the pros, and cons of the proposal? If something isn't done to bring in more money, the general fund is projected to be in the red over the next few years.

Hernandez is convinced the best way out is to pull the fire department out of the general fund and create a fire fee that every property owner would have to pay.

The city says they have two options: raise taxes or cut services. They're not going to let our citizens' homes burn, but their services, their help, comes at a cost.

"The citizens of Savannah have come to enjoy, and we've always provided the top-level service, and that's expensive," says Savannah Fire Chief, Charles Middleton.

"If we want to have the best, we must pay the best," Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach said. "Long-term, it's going to make it a lot easier for those who come behind us to do budgets, including ourselves, when we do it next year and the year after that, but in reality, it'll be a lot easier for us to do the budgets. We can only handle the money that's in the general fund, not that account, so it'll tie up that money."

Right now, the city has nearly 6,000 properties that all have the peace of mind that fire trucks and crews will come should things go up in flames. None of those property owners pay a dime. The city says that's not fair, but why are we looking at a hole in the city's bank account in the first place?

"The reality is that we're putting out more money than we ever anticipated putting out, and as a result, we have to find ways to cover that up," Alderman Van Johnson said.

"Things have changed. Cost of living has gone up and we finally went into reserves last year to pay for some items that we needed to pay for," Mayor DeLoach said. "Just like when a hurricane came through this past year, you have to make sure you have those reserves to take care of your citizens."

The city manager feels confident the fire fee will get the approval of council. Part of that confidence is the plan to reduce property taxes by one millage rate to help offset the cost of the fire fee.

Firefighters support the proposed fire fee

Many firefighters support the fee proposal because they already know property tax alone isn't cutting it for them.

There are currently 15 fire stations in Savannah. All of them require a four-minute response time for an emergency.

"To do that, this station is not adequate to house modern apparatus or even more personnel," said Assistant Savannah Fire Chief, Curtis Wallace.

This is the case for nine of the 15 fire stations. Some of these stations have been operational for more than 70 years. They are outdated and outgrown.

"We've got to double the occupancy to house our firefighters," Wallace said.

Right now, they're working with four beds, one toilet, one shower, and living spaces so small - they say they just can't function. Neither do the men who do it every day. What's dragging them down is, number one, not enough rest because the beds are too worn.

"They are slept in 365 days of the year with different people," one firefighter said.

Number two: Not enough space. Number three: outdated technology.

"With the station being older, we do have the older speakers and it is a lot harder to understand sometimes what our dispatch is saying as far as the address," another firefighter added.

What these firefighters want you to hear loud and clear is that fire fee or no fire fee, your emergency will always be their priority.

"We're here to serve and protect the people, and when it comes down to it, then that's what we're going to do. We're going to do whatever we can do to take care of everybody else in the city. At the end of the day, like captain said, we're going to respond and we're going to be there to help," another firefighter said.

Residents have issues with proposed price of new fire fee

At an early town hall meeting, some District 4 residents were heated over the proposed fire fee.

"Moving money out of the millage rate and making it a fee is still a tax," one resident said.

"It's a lot of money for the elderly community that we have and the poverty community. I just think we should start at $100; start at $150."

One woman says if property owners are being asked to redo their finances, city leaders should too when it comes to big-ticket items like surveys and consultants.

"When you sit down to look at your budget, will you promise to look at cutting spending,' Pam Miller asked.

With multiple massive projects planned, locals say we need to hit the pause button.

"While we want to do these grandiose things, maybe we can't afford all of them."

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